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, a forthnight ago 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.
In an earlier interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN, during his visit to New York to address a UN forum in July, the Iranian foreign minister had stated quite categorically that his country would never start a war, but that it was prepared to defend itself against any aggression. During that visit too tensions had been high following the interdiction of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar by British navy and the reciprocal seizure of a British tanker by the Iranians, as well as attacks on oil tankers in waters off the Arabian peninsula, and the downing by Iran of a US military drone on a reconnaissance flight.
Asked if the tensions in the Gulf could lead to a war with the United States, Mr. Zarif said, “You cannot simply disregard the possibility of a disaster. But we all need to work in order to avoid war.”
He also pointed out that the US was already waging an economic war on Iran through sanctions and other means. The US sanctions on Iran are “deliberately targeting innocent civilians” and amount to economic terrorism. Economic war is nothing to be proud of because in a military confrontation civilians may become collateral damage, but in an economic war civilians are the primary targets, said the Iranian foreign minister.
Speaking at the UN forum, Mr. Zarif also accused the US of “deliberately targeting innocent civilians to achieve illegitimate political objectives” with its severe sanctions of Iran.The “unlawful, extraterritorial” sanctions “represent the greatest threat to the achievement of sustainable development goals of Iran and many of our neighbours,” he added.
Prodded by the interviewer on whether the Iranian government was trying to raise tensions in the Arabian Gulf by interdicting tankers, and in a sense, signaling that it could in various ways block the flow of oil from the Straits of Hormuz, Mr. Zarif replied: “ Well you see we are in the Persian Gulf. We have fifteen hundred miles of coastline with the Arabian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz are our lifeline and their security is of paramount importance for Iran. But throughout history Iran has provided security in these waters. The United States is intervening in order to make these waters insecure for Iran. You cannot make these waters insecure for one country and secure it for others.
Asked whether an escalation in these waters would result in a military incident, the foreign minister pointed out that the Straits of Hormuz was such a small body of water and if you have so many foreign vessels accidents could happen. “You remember 1988, when a US warship in these waters shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing two hundred and ninety passengers. So, accidents, even catastrophes can happen under these circumstances.”
On whether the Iranian government was raising military tension by deliberately provoking the United States by downing its drone and seizing tankers, Mr. Zarif said “Last I heard the people who seized tankers were the Brits in Gibraltar who seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil against all principles of international law. We only defend our territory. The United States drone entered Iranian territory entered Iranian airspace. It was shot down because even without entering Iranian airspace it could spy over our entire territory while entering our airspace it not only threatened our territorial integrity but it was threatening our national security. We will not tolerate foreigners coming 6,000 miles from their shores to our shores and threatening our national sovereignty and stability.
Tensions between Iran and the US sharply escalated after US President Donald Trump came to power and decided to unilaterally withdraw from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with Western countries including the US. The deal between Tehran and world powers had successfully prevented Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions that many feared could lead to the development of an atomic bomb. But President Trump called the nuclear deal “one-sided” and reimposed punishing sanctions that have resulted in a sharp fall in Iranian oil exports and sent the country’s economy into a tailspin.
On the chances of a direct war with the United States the Iranian minister said: “I can tell you that we will never start a war. We’ve never started a war. We will never start a war, but we will defend ourselves and anybody who starts a war with Iran will not be the one who ends it.”
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.