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Iran's Foreign Minister Discusses Sanctions, Bashar Assad


We have a portrait this morning of the public face of Iran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is one of the authors of a nuclear deal with world powers. It remains in place despite President Trump's campaign promise to scrap it. Zarif was in New York this week just as President Trump affirmed Iran has been honoring the multilateral deal. Hours later, the United States also imposed new sanctions on Iran. Amid all of this, the foreign minister sat down with American reporters who have specialized in Iran.

And Steve, you went up to New York to sit in on this meeting. What did you take from it?


Well, it's a spirited talk. We talked for about an hour and a half. It was mostly, although not entirely, on the record with a person who is well-chosen, if you want a foreign minister who can in some way speak to or relate to the United States. He's U.S.-educated. He doesn't just know English, he knows American English. He speaks the idiom. And he's a mild mannered-looking person, whatever the regime he may represent. He's got a tightly cropped beard, going gray. He's got glasses. He smiles a lot.

He defended his country a lot, as you would expect, and expressed plenty of distaste for the new administration here in the United States. One of the things he said, by the way, was the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia seemed to be running many things in Washington right now, suggesting that the Saudis, Iran's rivals in the Persian Gulf, have too much influence here in Washington.

GREENE: Well, that speaks to the distrust.

INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely.

GREENE: I mean, he can't like the idea of what seems like some mixed messages. I mean, the Trump administration admitting that Iran is following the rules of that nuclear deal but then imposing economic sanctions on some individual Iranians.

INSKEEP: Yeah. But this he shrugged off - or tried to shrug off. And it's worth noting, by the way, the same thing would happen in President Obama's time. There would be new targeted sanctions showing U.S. distaste for Iran, disapproval of Iran at the very moment of some diplomatic advance between the two countries. And Zarif talked a little bit about this. Let's listen.


FOREIGN MINISTER MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: It has become now a rather tired routine that each time they want to certify or raise some of the sanctions, they make sure that they do something negative.

INSKEEP: And Zarif insisted, as Iranians often do, David, that the sanctions don't really influence them. You can make up your own mind. Sanctions were part of the diplomatic game leading up to the nuclear deal. He made it clear that he does not think that President Trump really knows his way around the Middle East.

GREENE: Well, isn't it worth asking the same question about Iran, if they know their way around? I mean, they've been supporting Syria's Bashar al-Assad with a lot of Iranians killed.

INSKEEP: Yeah. They think it's in their interest, but it's clearly awkward. And here's just one reason it's so awkward, David. Reporters made sure to raise this. Iran is firmly opposed to chemical weapons. They have a reason because chemical weapons actually were used on Iran in the 1980s by Iraq. And here's their friend Bashar al-Assad, who's repeatedly been found using chemical weapons. This was maybe the most heated moment in our whole talk because Iran's foreign minister, when asked about this, started questioning whether Assad has really used chemical weapons or at least whether he really used them on his own people last spring.


ZARIF: Look at the surroundings. Chemical weapons were used a day after President Trump announced that the removal of Bashar al-Assad was no longer a priority. Why in the world would Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons under those circumstances? Give the man a little bit of common sense.

INSKEEP: Oh, this prompted a lot of questions. One of the reporters in the room noted that it would be unwise to use Assad and common sense in the same sentence.

GREENE: (Laughter) Interesting.

INSKEEP: And in this part that I want to play next, you're going to hear Zarif with the writer Barbara Slavin. And she points out that President Trump's statement saying that Assad was not going to be overthrown might be the very reason that Assad would feel comfortable using chemical weapons.


ZARIF: Believe me, he is not crazy. To use chemical weapons the day after - why would he use chemical weapons the day after President Trump - I mean, just...

BARBARA SLAVIN: He felt empowered to get away with whatever he wanted.

ZARIF: Come on. Come on.

INSKEEP: Now later, Iran's foreign minister did admit that Syria has used chemical weapons but in the past, he insisted, and he blamed, quote, "rogue elements."

GREENE: Steve, what about Americans who are in jail in Iran? Did that come up?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. A lot of questions about a Chinese-American who was just sentenced and an Iranian-American businessman and his father who've been in prison for some time. Zarif made complicated statements here. At one point he said, well, Americans have refused to release Iranians, too, which suggests there's some kind of trade going on. But at other points he insisted that the Iranian justice system is doing its own thing, is independent and that he has nothing to say about it.

GREENE: Interesting meeting with reporters, sounds like.

INSKEEP: Without a doubt.

GREENE: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.