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President Donald Trump will not succeed in forcing Iran to capitulate to U.S. economic pressure because Tehran has a "Ph.D. in sanctions busting," Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to New York, Iran's top diplomat also said his country would not seek a confrontation with the United States or try to cut off the Strait of Hormuz unless Washington succeeded in imposing a total economic blockade.
President Donald Trump "believes that the maximum pressure policy will bring Iran to its knees," Zarif said. "Iran will not accept pressure."
Zarif said his country had decades of experience evading U.S. economic sanctions and that it would manage to survive this latest round of pressure. "We have a Ph.D. in sanctions busting," he said.
Iran had managed so far to meet the needs of its population and has continued to sell oil, Zarif said, though he admitted the sanctions had inflicted economic damage and caused pain for Iranian citizens.
The Trump administration's policy amounts to bullying other governments, he said, predicting that some countries would not give in to the pressure, citing public criticism of the sanctions by Turkey.
Zarif's comments came days after the Trump administration announced it would end waivers that allowed several countries to import Iranian oil, vowing to reduce Tehran's oil exports to "zero."
Zarif said Iran would not retaliate or dispute shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz despite the growing tensions with the U.S,, but said that could change if Washington managed to completely shut down the country's economy.
"We do not want to take any escalatory steps. This is our intention. The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are our lifeline," he said.
"If the United States decides or attempts to disrupt that by preventing us from using our own waters to advance our national economic interests, then it's changing the entire balance and the entire equation," he said.
"If Iran cannot sell oil, if Iran cannot import what it wants, then we will have no interest in the security of the Persian Gulf."
Added Zarif, "Our red line is that we have to be able to provide for our people."
Asked about the fate of Iranian-Americans and other dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, Zarif said he remains open to negotiating an exchange of detainees held in both countries but that Washington has yet to respond to his offer. He said he first made the offer six months ago.
"I've heard nothing from the administration," he said.
Zarif cited a letter Iran had received from the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O'Brien, that demanded the release of Americans held in Iran.
"Our red line is that we have to be able to provide for our people."
"Do you know what that letter said? He said, 'Please release them.' He didn't offer anything," he said. "They cannot expect unilateral concessions."
Zarif also said he did not think President Trump was seeking a war with Iran, but that other members of the administration were seeking to topple the Iranian government, including National Security Adviser John Bolton.
"Ambassador Bolton has another agenda," he said.
Zarif flew to New York after blaming U.S. financial sanctions for restricting the flow of aid to victims of large-scale flooding that has killed dozens and inundated towns across a wide swath of Iran. The Iranian Red Crescent said U.S. sanctions have prevented it from receiving donations from abroad.
But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington was ready to provide help through the Red Cross or Red Crescent, and accused Tehran of mismanaging the crisis.
The floods have affected 25 of 31 provinces and Iranian officials say at least 76 people have been killed in the deluge.