Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif

GENEVA: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is confident an agreement to end the Iranian nuclear crisis will be reached soon and that he would be able to sell it back home in Tehran despite hardline opposition there, he told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview.

“I would not agree on something if I didn’t believe that I could keep it when I go back,” Zarif told me Friday, just ahead of talks that will involve US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain.

“Of course whatever we create needs to be serious enough and solid enough to get the backing of our population. Otherwise it would become inherently unstable and untenable,” Zarif said. He said that he had to be “careful to prepare a … serious, solid document that takes care of all concerns of all sides.”

A previous agreement, a fuel swap agreed in Geneva in October 2009 , foundered when opponents to then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad torpedoed the deal once it had been brought back to Iran for final approval. Zarif is here negotiating on behalf of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who has the support of the real power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. But the mandate from the Supreme Leader for striking a deal is believed to be short, perhaps only a few months as there is strong hardline opposition in Iran to compromising on the nuclear program under pressure from the United States.

Washington has led a worldwide campaign to impose tough sanctions which have crippled the Islamic Republic’s oil sales and greatly hindered its ability to do international banking and so trade abroad. Rouhani was elected in June on a platform to save Iran’s ailing economy, and analysts think his first step must be to get rid of sanctions.

Surprisingly, Zarif said the details of an agreement would not require line-by-line clearance in Tehran, apparently referring to the Supreme Leader. Zarif said the general approach he was taking had been “vetted” and “I know the ideas that need to be addressed” But the actual “wording” — in an agreement where the devil is in the details — “is something that we can work on (in Geneva without running by the Supreme Leader in Tehran) and we will try to have a wording that is acceptable.”

Kerry made a last-minute decision to come to the talks which started Thursday, as a deal seems near. A deal giving guarantees Iran would not seek nuclear weapons would mark a hopeful beginning to end a decade-old crisis during which Iran has started from basically nothing to create a massive enrichment capability, with 18,000 centrifuges installed and over 10,000 actually churning out enriched uranium. This strategic product can be used to fuel civilian power reactors but also, when highly refined, as the explosive core of atom bombs.

Israel has said an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat, as Iran has also developed sophisticated missiles which could deliver nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has also expressed grave concerns about an Iranian bomb. The United States has said it will not allow Iran to get the bomb since this would be a strategic threat for America. US President Barack Obama has insisted that all options, including military, are on the table to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

iran-strike-map Zarif reiterated that the agreement would have three parts: first, to state a common objective; then to outline a first step towards proving the Iranian nuclear program is strictly civilian-oriented; and finally, to define an end state for the program. “You need to be ready to go into details,” Zarif said. He said there would be concrete measures in the deal, an answer to the US concern that Iran take concrete, verifiable steps to rein in its nuclear program.

“We’ve explained our positions. We know what it takes to resolve this issue at this stage,” Zarif said. But he refused to elaborate, saying negotiations would take place among ministers and officials and not in the public domain.

Kerry said upon arriving in Geneva Friday: “I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time.” He said there were “still some very important issues on the table that are unresolved. It is important for those to be properly, thoroughly addressed” and added: “I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

Kerry did not say more but it is believed a first step would involve Iran suspending at least some enrichment. It is a big question how much and it is an even bigger question what Iran would get for it. Iran wants all sanctions against it lifted. The United States wants any sanctions relief to be gradual, and reversible. Working out these details is difficult and touches on the basic question of just what sort of program Iran will have, after a decade of heavy investment in building one. Said Zarif: “The package needs to be based on respect and equal footing.”

This is easier said than done, and shows just how far Iran and the United States have come in resolving this issue, and that much remains to be done in the final spurt to the finish line.

Still, Zarif was confident. “Time is running out,” he said, “but we’ll do our best. (The deal will be struck) not today, maybe tomorrow. If we can’t agree to stay here tomorrow, maybe in a week’s time we’ll come back and do the drafting, but I think we have the ingredients for an agreement.”

Michael Adler studies the Iranian nuclear program and non-proliferation at the Wilson Center in Washington.


  • Don Bacon

    This isn’t over yet, but in any case somebody should write a book about the vast skills the Persians display in their foreign policy. We don’t know the details, but here they seem to be be ready to give up almost nothing — because they aren’t doing anything illegal to give up — and in return get a significant diplomatic victory over the U.S. and especially over Israel. The Iranians look like the good guys, and perception is everything.

    Iran, which chairs the 125-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — so it is hardly isolated — will gain even more respect with emerging nations, and the sanctions will be waived and violated even more than at present.

    It’s good theater, and the Iranians are playing their roles perfectly. I suspect that the U.S. congress will do their thing and act stupid yet again, which is why their popularity is in the single digits, but that would make the U.S. look even worse. Either way, Iran wins.

    • John Shniper

      This Administration sells out everything and knives everyone in the back.

      • PolicyWonk

        Perhaps you’d care to explain what you mean by “sells out everything” and “knives everyone”? Have you credible references to back up your opinion?

        I gather from your comment you’d prefer the previous administration, who sold out the US manufacturing base, 8.2 million jobs, allowed the transfer of tens of thousands of dual-use technologies and their hard-won manufacturing techniques, plus the tax base generated by those 8.2 million now unemployed people – to go to communist China?

        Patrick Buchanan wrote many an editorial on this very topic during 2002-2008 imploring the administration to cease and desist – and unfortunately for all of us – his predictions all came true.

        In 8 short years, the Bush Administration did more damage to the US than the USSR did in 60 years of cold war. After inheriting a nation at peace and an $800B budget surplus – they left behind: the worst economic disaster since the great depression; two unfinished wars; the worst string of national security and foreign policy disasters in history (multiple years of US National Intelligence Estimates, world press, etc.); massive expenditures on corporate welfare; tax breaks (welfare) for the wealthy (CBO report on the cause of the economic crash); and a military at its lowest state of readiness since Viet Nam (JCS report on force readiness to the POTUS, Spring 2009). As an added bonus, when GW Bush left office, the rest of the planets population believed that the USA was a larger threat to world peace than IRAN (Pew Research).

        G W Bush is rated as the worst POTUS in over a century by every scholarly Presidential Ranking Study conducted since. Worst in US (let alone global) history for foreign policy – second worse in history for economic/financial management. His overall ranking (39th out of 43), makes former POTUS Jimmy Carter’s look downright enviable (he’s ranked either 25th or 27th) in comparison.

        Hence – while this POTUS isn’t perfect – he’s done/doing nothing near the kind of damage comparable to that left behind by even one of the massive problems listed above that his predecessor did.

        Again – what evidence do you have that supports your comment?

        • Don Bacon

          Damn, that’s good.
          Almost makes me love Obama.

          • PolicyWonk

            Heh –
            Don, I hardly consider the current incumbent perfect. However, I am able to take a step back and know when I’m better off than I was before. I want this nation to do well regardless of who is POTUS because I am an American FIRST.
            Obama, for all his flaws, by any reasonable measure, is a vast improvement over his predecessor. The job of POTUS is widely considered the hardest job on the planet in the best of times.
            However, given the above, and what Obama inherited (contrast that to what G W Bush inherited), I’m somewhat inclined to cut the guy some slack. Especially given a GOP that remains deeply resentful of his winning the presidency – despite the lousiest performance of a (of any party) POTUS in over a century.

  • Don Bacon

    WaPo: “European leaders are bullish on finding a deal with Iran …”

    What motivates European leaders to find a deal in Iran?

    One large factor is that the “Iran sanctions” affected not only buyers but also sellers, of course, and a large part of Iran’s non-petroleum trade was with Europe.

    Europe’s economy is in the dumps, and in some countries worse than in Iran. France’s Peugeot got hit hard with the sanctions. A lot of Frenchmen lost their jobs. That could all be gotten back, especially now that the EU court is finding the sanctions illegal.

    • John Shniper

      Defending your Country has been declared a Crime against Humanity by France’s Highest Court. All other European Courts are expected to follow. Surprised.

    • Ward_Boston_JAGC_Remembered

      “What motivates European leaders to find a deal in Iran?”

      Because it is the right thing to do.

      Or are we back to watching half a million children dying like happened in Iraq?

      Making peace is a deal.

  • John Shniper

    We pay fifty billion cash to the Iranian Fascists IMMEDIATELY and the Iranian fascists have three months to decide what,if anything, THEY are going to give us in return. What a deal: I meant steal. Award the Nobel Early to the Grand Ayatollah.

  • omegatalon

    Obama will do what he thinks is in the best interest for the history book and not what would be good for the United States or our allies in the region; imagine if Iran gets the nuke and terrorists smuggle a nuke into the US from Mexico as the country could be held hostage or possibly lose an entire city.. as a 50 kiloton device could level New York City.

    • Don Bacon

      My heavens, that IS scary. But thus far only the US, Russia and Israel are believed to have the capability to manufacture miniaturized nuclear weapons. And I certainly think that Russia and Israel can be trusted. ha

  • Don Bacon

    Looks like France torpedoed the Geneva talks.

    Didn’t Kerry have all the information on France-Saudi nuclear ties — meeting
    notes, phone conversations, etc etc — from the $50 billion NSA spy
    program, plus France’s intention to torpedo the talks ?

    al Bawaba, Oct 3, 2013
    France has been the first country to sign government to government agreement on nuclear and energy with Saudi Arabia.

    French companies AREVA and EDF hosted a number of Saudi business and
    industry representatives at their Second Suppliers Day event held in
    Jeddah on Tuesday to take part in the framework of the sustainable
    energy program suggested by King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable
    Energy (KA-CARE) focused on nuclear and renewable energy sources.

    Some 200 participants from local companies attended, including Dr.
    Mohieden Garwan, KA-CARE, French Ambassador to KSA Bertrand Besancenot,
    representatives of Saudi industry, along with Tarek Choho, AREVA Chief
    Commercial Officer and Mrs. Valerie Levkov, EDF VP New Nuclear Energy.
    The suppliers’ day initiative aimed at providing local industry with a
    platform for exposure, knowledge sharing, and networking.

    If he did have this information, why did he go to Geneva and look
    foolish yet again, along with the other FM’s? Didn’t they have better
    things to do than go on a wild goose chase courtesy of La Belle France?

    If he didn’t have this information then perhaps we have an overblown
    ineffective stumbling mislead criminal spy organization. But we knew

  • Don Bacon

    Okay, not so “soon. ”

    Now we have two stories in the Western press, pro- and anti-France, and no story yet from Iran. It’s shaking out.

    • Colin Clark

      Soon is as soon does. He did say clearly I tight take a wee bit more than the immediate talks in Geneva, which is more than any other western media had–especially from the horse’s mouth!