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Zarif in New York: Why does he seem so inviting?

In between truth-dodging and trolling Senator Tom Cotton, Iran’s foreign minister, speaking Wednesday in New York, displayed an impressive command of colloquial English and contemporary American culture. And no, Netanyahu was most certainly not spared his wry sarcasm.

Mohammad Zarif (right)  with the Washington Post's David Ignatius in New York City, April 29 2015 (credit: Gili Getz)

Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in New York City, April 29 2015 (credit: Gili Getz)

NEW YORK — Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, believes that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is one of the biggest threats to international security.

“It is laughable,” he said, “that Netanyahu has become everyone’s non-proliferation guru. He is sitting on over 400 nuclear warheads that have been acquired in violation of the NPT [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, and Israel isn’t].” And, he added, we know “who violated protocol” by giving those weapons to Israel. “So,” he concluded, “You’ve gotta be real.”

Zarif’s deft use of a colloquial expression drew appreciative laughter from the audience. In one short sentence he demonstrated that his English was completely fluent, that he was familiar with contemporary American culture, and that he had a sense of humor. Throughout the 90-minute event, which was framed as an interview conducted by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the foreign minister radiated calm and confidence. And he was charming, except when he chose to turn on a steely, blunt-spoken persona.

The conversation ranged over several issues, starting with the ongoing multilateral — or P5+1 — negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif said that he and Kerry had agreed on the parameters, and that they were on track for the completion of a road map by June 30. He described it as “good” but “not perfect,” adding that there was “no way to get an agreement that reflects the desires of everyone.” Iran, he emphasized several times, was committed to the negotiations, and everyone involved had invested significant political capital in their success.

The principle of the negotiations is sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for a reduction in its centrifuges and stockpile of nuclear fuel, which would be confirmed by international inspectors.

For Zarif, the opposition he had dealt with among Iran’s leadership was “heat,” and Congressional opposition not his problem. “We don’t want to get bogged down in domestic American procedures,” he said. In a jab that many in the audience seemed to appreciate, Zarif said pointedly that the U.S. would have to sign the agreement “no matter what Senator Cotton says.” Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican senator from Arkansas, recently wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership that was signed by 47 Republican senators, in which he claimed that President Obama could not be regarded as a credible negotiator because Congress would not ratify an agreement with Iran.

Cotton took Zarif’s bait and tweeted out an invitation to rumble. After accusing Zarif of hiding out in the United States to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war, he issued his challenge:

To which Zarif replied:

For the Iranian minister, the purpose of his public conversation with Ignatius was to present the Iranian government’s position on a number of issues — an Islamic Republic Doctrine of sorts, as conveyed by Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran wants a nuclear agreement, and it wants to be accorded international respect and credibility as a regional power in the Middle East.

The interesting bits were the trolling and the claims that were either “truthy” or not true at all.

Zarif trolled Tom Cotton, and then in turn trolled the government of Saudi Arabia (one of Tehran’s most bitter regional rivals). When Ignatius asked Zarif if he would be willing to accept a Saudi nuclear program and agreement similar to the ones sought by his country, the Iranian diplomat answered unhesitatingly in the affirmative. Would he trust the Saudis to maintain a purely peaceful nuclear program? Yes, insisted Zarif. “It’s their right and rights have to be applied indiscriminately across the board.” A few minutes later, he accused the Saudis of deliberately bombing a landing strip in Yemen so that Iranian planes loaded with relief cargo for civilians had to turn back. The Saudis, he claimed, had been informed in advance and knew what the planes were carrying. A bit later, he said that Iran and Saudi Arabia had a shared interest in fighting non-state actors like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The trolling gave way to claims that seemed rather disingenuous. Zarif said that Iran was committed to nonintervention in regional disputes, referring specifically to Syria. He rejected vehemently the claim that the continuation of the Assad regime was the reason for the Islamic State’s continued appeal. Instead he blamed the Western powers for empowering non-state actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS by insisting on preconditions to negotiations aimed at resolving the ongoing civil war. Let the Syrians decide for themselves, he said. Preconditions, he said, lead to a freeze in negotiations and more bloodshed. Meanwhile, only this week the Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford reported that Iran has been propping up the Assad regime with $35 billion in loans per annum, plus soldiers and paramilitaries.

As for the principle of negotiations without preconditions, apparently Zarif did not mean for it to apply to all countries. During the Q&A that followed the interview, Ignatius chose a few of the questions that had been submitted by audience members before the event began. In all cases but one, Ignatius identified the journalist and the media outlet she or he worked for before asking the question. But in one case he skipped that bit of information, which was wise of him, and went straight to the question: “Would you negotiate with Israel without preconditions?”

The answer was a single syllable: “No.”

“Because,” explained Zarif,  “We have a situation where those directly involved have been subjected to an elemental violation of their right to exist as sovereign state.” The Israelis, he said (using the pronoun “they”) should stop looking for “scapegoats” and “smokescreens” and solve their own problem, should stop bombing Gaza every two years. But when asked if Iran would negotiate with an Israeli government that had ended the occupation and resolved its issues with the Palestinians, he said “no” again. My impression was that mention of Israel flustered him a bit and that he had not even listened properly to the follow up question before answering.

After the event, I learned from Yael Even-Or, who covered it for Walla! News, that she had submitted the question. Ignatius, the experienced foreign correspondent, must have known that Zarif would have refused to answer if he’d known it came from an Israeli reporter.

But despite all the hypocrisies and the truth-dodging on certain issues, the most pertinent one is the multilateral nuclear negotiations. That is the one the whole world is watching. It is clear that all the parties want this agreement, and that they have worked incredibly hard to make the negotiations work. It will be very interesting to see what happens on June 30 — or, perhaps, around June 30. As Foreign Minister Zarif put it, quoting the Supreme Leader, “…we should not kill this agreement for a few days more or less. This is a human process, not a divine process.”

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    1. Joel

      Iran is a signatory to the NPT and is violating that treaty by seeking to develop nuclear arms.

      Sooooo…..blame the Jews. What an original thinker!

      “Zarif said that Iran was committed to nonintervention in regional disputes”

      That’s a laugh.

      This guy is one part Krushchev, one part Tariq Aziz, and two parts pure bullshit, but here comes the march of the ‘useful idiots’.

      Reply to Comment
      • Phil

        The biggest laugh is that you continue to parrot Natanyahoo’s bullshit about a fictitious iranian bomb…

        Even Mossad doesn’t believe they’re trying to make a bomb..

        Bit of a useless idiot son, aren’t you?

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel


          “Even Mossad doesn’t believe they’re trying to make a bomb.. ”


          *Phil disappears*

          Reply to Comment
          • Yeah, Right

            Here’s one:

            The original document that the above article is based upon can be found here:

            For other sources of information unrelated to the above, you can go here:

            The original NY Times article that the above referenced can be found here:

            The money shot in that NY Times article: “Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, agrees with the American intelligence assessments,”

            Now, that took all of five minute, Joel.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            For future reference Joel, you might find the following site useful


            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Oh. So let me see if I got this straight.
            Two years ago, there was a 75% chance that Iran was not restarting it’s weaponization program (which is separate and apart from their enrichment program).

            “As a result, officials caution that they cannot offer certainty. “I’d say that I have about 75 percent confidence in the assessment that they haven’t restarted the program,” said one former senior intelligence official.

            Another former intelligence official said: “Iran is the hardest intelligence target there is. ”

            And with all that in mind, Phil confidently stated, “Even Mossad doesn’t believe they’re trying to make a bomb..”

            No Phil. Under the very best circumstances, and politics completely aside, there is only a good chance that Iran’s WEAPONIZATION program hasn’t been re-started. Their nuclear enrichment program, the guts of a nuclear bomb, is still ‘going great guns’.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            You seem to have forgotten that in your original post you claimed that “Iran is a signatory to the NPT and is violating that treaty by seeking to develop nuclear arms”

            Now, after being called on that you’ve backtracked to waffle about their nuclear enrichment programme.. which of course does not indicate that Iran is trying to make a bomb.. waffle and obfuscation, just waffle and obfuscation, standard hasbara tactic

            Similar to other blinkered souls of your type.. all on your high horse until someone proves you wrong and then you change the parameters of the discussion to try and wriggle out of the hole you’ve dug yourself into

            Really Joel, have you that little self-respect?

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Until recently, Iran was holding onto a stock of 20%-enriched uranium, which is essentially “within striking distance of weapons-grade uranium,” said Robert Kelley, a former nuclear weapons inspector with the United Nations.


            What part of WEAPONS GRADE URANIUM don’t you get?

            I’ll say it again, because you seem so fucking dense.

            W-E-A-P-O-N-S G-R-A-D-E U-R-A-N-I-U-M


            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            You can shout all you like Joel, but it will not turn 20% enriched uranium into weapons grade i.e. 90% enriched

            In addition, not only have the Iranian’s not enriched anything over 5% since the start of 2014, they have dramatically reduced their stock of 20% enriched uranium (again, not weapons grade not matter how loud you shout) in the same period

            What part of 20 does not equal 90 do you not get?

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            “Increasing the percentage of U-235 becomes progressively easier, as explained in a 2012 glossary by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Harvard Kennedy School.
            If the aim is to reach 90 per cent, getting to 3.5 per cent requires some 75 per cent of the work, and once 20 per cent is attained, nine-tenths of the job is done.
            For this reason, when in February 2010 Iran began enriching to 20 per cent alarm bells rang.”


            Phil. You’ve already proven your ignorance. So unless you want to also prove what an annoyance you are, you ought to move on.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            And let’s look at Netanyahoo’s record

            1992 – tells Knesset that Iran will have a nuke in 3-5 years

            1995 – repeats the 3-5 years claim in his book (although it should have been 1-3 years at that point)

            2002 – tells congress Iran is advancing quickly towards a nuke

            2009 – tells a visiting congressional delegation Iran is 1-2 years away from a nuke

            2012 – tells a closed meeting with Israeli media Iran is a few months away from a nuke

            But of course, this unending stream of bullshit is what you choose to believe, not Mossad’s assessments, not US Intelligence assessments, but the inanities of a megalomaniac who would rather war than peace

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            Joel.. it needs to be enriched to 90% to be weapons grade.. did you not even read the article that you linked??

            And seeing as how you quoted Robert Kelley, the former UN nuclear weapons inspector,

            “the last we heard is the intelligence community doesn’t believe there is a secret program. If there is a secret program, it would be very large, it would have to go everything from uranium mining to conversion to chemistry, to producing UF6, to making centrifuges and running them. And all you’ve got to do is have one person who leaks that information who is a spy or an insider, and poof, this whole big secret program would be revealed.

            So yeah. Is there a secret program? Yeah, could be. They could have a secret program to put a man on the moon. But it’s really stretching to say that, because you can say that about any country anywhere.”


            “Iran is cooperating fully in the area of nuclear materials. When the U.S. asks to go to a military base or to go to a factory that’s producing missiles, Iran says, “Wait a minute. You know, that’s not part of our agreement with you.” And people are misconstruing that to say they’re not cooperating in nuclear. Simply not true”


            There are multiple interviews with YOUR quoted source where he says there is no proof Iran have an active nuclear weapons programme..

            Also, you are confused between what it means to have weapons grade material and what it means to weaponise said material.. they are two completely different things..

            So when you shout weapons grade uranium (after quoting a guy who says the Iranians don’t actually have any), you’re simply showing your ignorance..

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Kelley says that he doesn’t know if Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program and admits that ‘Iran only acknowledged its two main uranium enrichment plants after they were exposed by people outside the country’.

            We do know that Iran did have a weaponization program. Whether that program is still operative is not known outside of Iran’s ruling circle. How far along this weaponization program was before is supposedly stopped, is also unknown.

            The enrichment of weapons grade uranium is something we do know about.
            “They already have paved a path to a bomb’s worth of material. Iran could get there now if they walked away in two to three months without a deal.”–Vice President Joseph A. Biden

            So. Iran is three months away from ‘bomb’ material. The open question, the question that Kelley cannot answer, is whether Iran now has, or will have in the not to distant future, the means to weaponize the ‘bomb’ material.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            “The enrichment of weapons grade uranium is something we do know about”

            That is true. We know that 20% enriched is not weapons grade, but you seem incapable of grasping that 20 does not equal 90.

            We also know that Iran has significantly reduced their stock of 20% enriched and has not enriched any uranium over 5% since the start of last year.. again 20% is not weapons grade, but a reduction in this is the opposite direction to creating weapons grade.. fairly simple to grasp I would have thought

            So what we know is that, not only does Iran have NO weapons grade uranium, it has also reduced it’s capacity to produce same..

            So your statement that Iran is three months away from weapons grade material is based on thin air.. you have proven again and again in this thread that you have no facts to back up what is merely an opinion.. and an ill-informed one at that

            As regards a weaponisation programme.. you now asserts that nobody knows whether one currently exists or not.. this is a far cry from your original post stating that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear arms

            So first they are, then maybe they are, then no-one knows they are, then they have weapons grade uranium, oh em no they don’t but they could have in three months.. em er but.. no yes.. he said she said.. it’s hard to keep up with the flip flopping

            I’m not going to waste any more time in this discussion.. you have too much difficulty separating opinion from provable facts..

            As your opinion flips back and forth depending on the arguments ranged against you, it is pointless to debate any further

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel


            “So your statement that Iran is three months away from weapons grade material is based on thin air.”

            No. That’s Vice President Biden’s statement.
            I also quoted Kelley, that 20% enriched uranium is ‘nine tenths’ weapons grade uranium. Combine ‘nine tenths’ of a bomb with Iran’s actual attempts at weaponization, and leaven that with Iran’s proven record of obfuscation and hiding research, and we have a real problem, or at least President Obama and the P5+1 think there’s a problem.

            But Phil’s not bothered so we should stick our heads in the sand too.

            Phil.Get bent.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            @Joel.. how pathetic is it that you tell me to get sodomised as you cannot refute anything I have said..

            You are one exemplary human being.. I hope your mom and dad are proud of you

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            ‘Get bent’ has several meanings, and your welcome to take it anyway you like.

            Actually. I’ve refuted everything you’ve said, which is why you opted out of the discussion, and for your information, Dad’s dead and Mom has senile dementia.
            I think I’d have a better chance of getting through to them than through your thick skull.

            Reply to Comment
          • phil

            If you saying “get bent” meant anything other than what I pulled you up on, you would say so, your response indicates that you meant exactly what I said.. i.e. what “get bent” is commonly taken to mean in the English language

            Hiding behind your folks (if what you say about them is true) as a way of manipulating the subject is beyond pathetic..

            Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      Technically, Iran isn’t interfering in Syria because it is engaging with the legitimate government of Syria. It is the US and its vassal Gulf states plus Israel that is interfering in Syria by arming and financing the largely foreign based insurgency. Without their continued support it would dry up and the civil war would end.

      Reply to Comment
      • andrew r

        The legitimate Syrian govt. that went to war against its own population by deploying snipers against unarmed protesters. And what’s with the legitimacy kick? Most of the diplomatic world recognizes Israel as a legitimate successor to the British Mandate of Palestine (one of them, anyway).

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Security forces of the USA kill hundreds of its citizens every year yet no one questions its legitimacy. The regime of Al-Sisi slaughters over 1000 people in the streets – not a peep from the West or its media. Saudi Arabia commits an act of aggression against Yemen. Nothing, nada.

          The Syrian government succeeds in making “small peaces” with various indigenous rebel groups but the main ones sponsored by the USA and its client states refuse categorically to negotiate with the regime.

          The only people making war on the Syrian people are sitting in wood paneled offices in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara, Jerusalem and Riyadh. That’s the axis of evil right there.

          Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            Security forces of the USA kill hundreds of its citizens every year yet no one questions its legitimacy.

            This point of course does nothing to dispute the contention that the Assad regime had all the agency in starting the conflict. A good example:

            “I was in Squad 14 (Firqa 14) of the 4th Regiment. We were around 300 soldiers deployed to Izraa. I had heard so much about foreign armed groups that I was eager to fight them. But then General Nasr Tawfiq gave us the following orders: “Don’t shoot at the armed civilians. They are with us. Shoot at the people whom they shoot at.” We were all shocked after hearing his words, as we had imagined that the people were killed by foreign armed groups, not by the security forces. We realized that our orders were to shoot at our own people.”


            The only people making war on the Syrian people are sitting in wood paneled offices in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara, Jerusalem and Riyadh

            Yet for some reason the airforce controlled by Washington bombed absolutely nothing in Syria until it decided ISIS expansion was too intolerable. And this is a much needed discussion about Israel’s position on the Syrian civil war.


            Reply to Comment
    3. Bar

      We are simply insane to be cutting a deal with the present Iranian regime. Whatever benefits Obama may think will come of it are nothing but a pipe-dream. Except that this dream will end up giving Iran international sanction to build nukes in about 10-15 years.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Moses

      I find Christian Science Monitor’s numbers on Iran’s spending in Syria rather unrealistic. Iran’s oil revenues are around $60bn per annum, most of which they have no access to, and Nicholas Blanford claims Iran is spending $35bn in Syria?!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Thanks for article. Not sure what you mean by “trolling” here. The response to Cotton seemed spot on, no? I’m skeptical of the $1 -$2 billion/month in aid to Syria, and the $35 billion/year number. Iran’s GDP has declined sharply under sanctions–from $530 billion in 2012 to $368 billion in 2014. $35 billion in foreign aid to Syria would represent 10% of GDP. Total government revenues 2013 were estimated at $47 billion. That kind of revenue cannot support anywhere near $35 billion/year to Syria.

      Reply to Comment
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