Iran’s foreign minister has raised the specter of “all-out war” in the event of US or Saudi military strikes and that Saudi Arabia would have to fight “to the last American soldier.”
In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, Javad Zarif said Iran hoped to avoid conflict, adding that the country was willing to talk to its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But the possibility of a return to negotiations with the US, however, would not happen unless Washington provided full sanctions relief as promised under the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran’s top diplomat said.
He again denied Tehran’s involvement in weekend attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which dramatically ratcheted up tensions in the region this week. Zarif said Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who claimed responsibility for the attack, have stepped up their military capabilities and are capable of conducting a sophisticated operation such as the one that knocked out half of the kingdom’s energy production.
US and Saudi officials have repeatedly dismissed Houthi claims of responsibility in the weekend attacks. Instead, they have highlighted Iran’s alleged involvement in the incident. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was the first official to name Iran as the culprit, is in the Persian Gulf visiting Saudi and Emirati leaders.
War drums have become louder since the attack. US President Donald Trump has called on Pentagon officials to plan potential responses. He tweeted that the US was “locked and loaded” but was waiting for Saudi Arabia’s rulers to decide on a path forward.
Asked what the consequence of a US or Saudi military strike on Iran would be, Zarif said: “All-out war.” “I make a very serious statement about defending our country. I am making a very serious statement that we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” said Zarif. He added that a military response based on “deception” about the weekend attacks would cause “a lot of casualties.” “But we won’t blink to defend our territory,” he said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Saudi Ministry of Defense spokesman Turki al-Malki said weapons that missed their targets were found to be Iranian-made. He also said that investigations revealed that the drones and missiles were likely launched from the north of the kingdom, and not from the direction of Yemen, which lies southwest of the country.
Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018. He has since imposed more than 1,000 individual sanctions on Tehran, which culminated with an oil embargo this May. Zarif himself is also sanctioned.
“(The JCPOA) is an agreement that we reached with the United States. Why should we renegotiate? Why should we start something else which may again be invalid in a year and a half,” said Zarif. Sanctions relief, however, could change Tehran’s calculations, opening the possibility for talks. “If they lift the sanctions that they re-imposed illegally then that’s a different situation,” said Zarif. “Then we would consider (talks).”
US sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, causing the currency to plummet and prices to soar. The economy has contracted and food and medical shortages are rampant. “They’ve done whatever they could and they haven’t been able to bring us to our knees,” said Zarif.
Iran’s top diplomat — who spent several years in the United States as a student and later as UN ambassador — said he misses little about the country that now has him on its sanctions list. But he says he longs for the days of “rational” policy-making. “What I miss is rationality. What I miss is prudence. I think the US deserves to be more rational,” said Zarif.
CNN’s Salma Aldelaziz contributed to this report from Tehran. Tamara Qiblawi wrote from Beirut.