Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday his country does not want a war with the U.S. but said President Donald Trump must lift harsh economic sanctions on Tehran to clear the way for negotiations.
In an interview with NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt, Zarif said the door is "wide open" to diplomacy if Trump removes the array of sanctions he has imposed since 2017 that have slashed the country’s oil exports and damaged its economy.
"Once those sanctions are lifted, then ... the room for negotiation is wide open," Zarif said during a visit to New York for a U.N. conference.
Zarif said it was the United States, not Iran, that had undermined diplomacy by walking away from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.
"It is the United States that left the bargaining table. And they're always welcome to return," Zarif said.
President Donald Trump last year pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, which curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of U.S. and international sanctions. Trump blasted the accord as the "worst deal ever," saying it granted Iran too many concessions and failed to curb the country’s ballistic missile program.
As tensions have flared between Washington and Tehran in recent weeks, Trump has said that he is open to talks with Iran without preconditions but that he was determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Zarif said Iran had no interest in securing a nuclear arsenal, though it could have built the bomb if it wanted to.
"Had we been interested in developing nuclear weapons, we would have been able to do it long time ago," Zarif said.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded previously that Iran abandoned a nuclear weapons program in 2003, but could revive it if and when it decided to.
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The Trump administration tightened oil sanctions on Iran in April, drastically cutting the country’s oil exports, which are a crucial source of revenue.
Iran has responded by taking incremental steps breaching some provisions of the nuclear deal. Tehran has exceeded limits on uranium stockpiles and on uranium enrichment, which it agreed to in the accord, and has warned it will take additional steps if it does not get relief from the U.S. economic sanctions.
Since April, when Trump ratcheted up the pressure on Iran’s oil trade, tankers in the Persian Gulf have twice come under attack. The Trump administration blamed Iran for the incidents, which Tehran denies.
After Iran downed a U.S. drone last month, the administration planned a retaliatory strike hours later but Trump called it off, saying he was concerned about potential casualties. Iran said the drone was in Iranian airspace, but Washington insists otherwise.
Zarif said he did not think the two countries were on the verge of war, saying neither his government nor Trump was seeking armed conflict.
"I do not believe that President Trump wants war. But I believe that people are around him who wouldn't mind," Zarif said.
He added: "But I don't think they'll succeed because at the end of the day, I think prudence will prevail. People know that Iran is a big, proud country. And we will not take a military attack lightly."
Zarif is visiting New York to attend a U.N. conference on sustainable development, but his attendance was uncertain as the U.S. threatened last month to impose travel sanctions on him.
In the end, Zarif was granted a visa over the weekend but his delegation’s movements are sharply curtailed for his visit. Under the visa, Zarif and his colleagues are only permitted to travel between U.N. headquarters and the Iranian mission several blocks away, and to the residence of Iran’s U.N. ambassador.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the decision in an interview with The Washington Post, saying: "U.S. diplomats don’t roam around Tehran, so we don’t see any reason for Iranian diplomats to roam freely around New York City, either."
Pompeo accused Zarif of using "the freedoms of the United States to come here and spread malign propaganda" and said he would accept an offer to appear on Iranian state television. Pompeo also said he would tell Iranians that "we care deeply about them, that we're supportive of the Iranian people, that we understand that the revolutionary theocracy is not acting in a way that is in their best interest."
Zarif's visit to New York came as European foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss how to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran and to salvage the nuclear deal. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there was time to rescue the agreement, but the clock was ticking.
"Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb. There is still some closing, but small window to keep the deal alive," Hunt told reporters on arrival in Brussels.
Trump's decision to reject a nuclear agreement that took years to negotiate has caused a deep rift with European allies.
The frustration in European capitals was underscored by the leak of a scathing diplomatic cable from Britain’s former ambassador, Kim Darroch. In the May 2018 note published by The Mail on Sunday, Darroch called Trump’s decision to leave the deal "an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons" to spite former President Barack Obama.
Darroch also wrote that the White House had no strategy for what would come after rejecting the agreement and "no sort of plan for reaching out to partners and allies."
Zarif said Iran has acted with restraint and waited for about a year before it started to violate certain limits in the nuclear agreement, which he said was allowed under the terms of the deal. But he said the Trump administration had abruptly pulled out of a deal that the U.S. had negotiated and signed.
"I think the United States is playing with fire," Zarif said.
Asked if there was a face-saving offer that Iran would accept from Washington, Zarif said: "I think in any negotiations, you need to find a win/win situation. Otherwise, you'll end up with a lose/lose situation."