‘We didn’t expect India to be bullied by the US,’ says Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif

Iranian Foreign Minister, during an interaction in Tehran, quipped that while Trump may need Modi’s votes in Texas, India has allowed itself to be bullied by US in stopping oil purchases from Iran

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif

Rashme Sehgal

The Iranian Foreign Minister, during an interaction in Tehran, quipped that while President Trump may need Modi’s votes in Texas, India has allowed itself to be bullied by the US in stopping oil purchases from Iran. Indian tax payers, he says, are paying

The US economic sanctions have placed Iran in a very difficult situation. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif points out that Iran has been on the ‘receiving end of antagonism and hostility’ for 40 years.

India and Iran have known each other through millennia through trade and cultural exchange though, he says at the outset while meeting a group of Indian women journalists in Tehran.

‘When we come to India, we see many graves of Iranian kings. The older generation of Indians continue to speak Persian, continue to recite Hafiz, Sayeed and Rumi and other Iranian poets. We have been much more successful with our poets, mystics and merchants than with our kings. We see Indians of all religions come to their graves to pay their respect on a daily basis. These bonds are much more difficult to be broken down than political or economic alignment or short-term global changes,’ said Zarif.

Rashme Sehgal provides excerpts from the interaction:

India has stopped lifting oil from Iran because of sanctions. Are you disappointed?

India has taken a stand against sanctions. India has said they do not accept any sanctions except UN sanctions. We however expected India to be more resilient vis-a-vis US pressures. The reason we expected them to reject this pressure is that if you remember we all have had bullies in our high schools. The bullies usually start with the smallest kid in the class and then move up. The more you allow a bully to bully you, the more you put yourself on the receiving end.

On the global arena, people believe we have to be on the right side of President Trump, but bullies never have a right side. The bully is there only to put others into submission.

Many countries including China and Russia have come forward to support Iran. India, being a great democracy, a huge country with huge potential and a huge capability, and a nuclear power as well, it cannot be bullied as China has refused to.

But you are already being bullied by the US, when you don’t buy oil and petrochemical and fertilisers from us but are buying it at three times the price from others; who pays at the end, the Indian people pay. It is your people who pay.

If you can’t lift oil from Iran, we will not be able to buy rice. Who pays? The Indian farmer will pay the price. So already, India is being bullied by the US.

We expect our friends not to accept this. We don’t interfere in external affairs with our friends. But we believe we need to have a long-term perspective on these issues.

Are you going to resume oil trade by circumventing these sanctions by continuing to sell oil to other countries?

Iran will continue to sell oil and other countries will continue to buy our oil. But the nature of this new business is lack of transparency. One of the greatest victims of US coercive economic measures is transparency. And one of the biggest gainers of coercive measures is corruption because corrupt people will make a lot of money. Iranian oil will always have its customers, transactions will always be conducted, the only difference is that some people will have a chance to make a lot of money by buying oil from us and selling it at a higher price.

How has this affected the development of the Chabahar port?

Certainly, the speed of Chabahar is not as fast as we had all wanted. Chabahar is much greater than India and Iran. It affects regional stability, Afghanistan’s future and the future of Iraq, the Middle East countries, terrorism, the future of illegal economy and drug trafficking.

The fight between the formal economy and the informal economy lies in the ability of the Afghan government to send goods outside Afghanistan through the port of Chabahar in order to send goods abroad. This formal economy needs to be strengthened. Chabahar is exempted from sanctions but natural slowdown has affected the work.

The Chinese are building the sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Will the slowdown of Chabahar and India not buying oil from Iran see rising Chinese influence in this region?

We don’t see Chabahar as a competition between India and China. Chabahar is open to our friends. China is interested in working with Iran. We are a major partner in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. We don’t look at relations with India to be against relations with China and vis versa. India can rely on Iran as an independent and reliable source of energy and stability and the same is the case with China.

India and Iran are collaborating on counter terrorism. What are your views on terrorism emanating from Pakistan?

What is happening in Pakistan, is not Pakistan-sponsored but Saudi sponsored terrorism. We are engaged with their government in order to contain them. We will continue to engage with them to safeguard our borders from cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.

A source of common concern for us, as it is for India and Pakistan, is the revival of Daish in Afghanistan. IS is being moved from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. IS has territory in Afghanistan and this is a matter of concern to all of us as it is to the countries of central Asia including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which will bear the brunt of it. We are routinely engaging with our Indian friends over relocation of IS and the threat emanating from this move. We are also in touch with Pakistan, Russia and China. This is an issue that can unite all of us.

We have information that the US has helped in the relocation of certain Daish commanders, particularly commanders coming from India and Pakistan and those with Central Asian origin. Ten helicopters were used to take them out.

Apart from oil, what are your other industries that have been affected by sanctions?

Everything has been hit; that is why I call this economic terrorism. I do not call them sanctions. Sanctions are a means to enforce laws. The US is not enforcing the law. The US is enforcing illegality. Security Council resolution calls for all countries to normalise economic relations. The US is putting pressure on countries not to normalise relations with Iran. If someone violates the law, you take them to task but if someone coughs on their street and you grab him by their neck and take him as hostage, this is not sanction, this is terrorism.

US Secretary of State Pompei said and this is a Newsweek headline, that if Iran wants its people to eat, they have to follow what the US says. That in any dictionary is terrorism.

What is terrorism? It is the use of coercion to force people to follow your diktat. What Pompei says is a very textbook definition of terrorism. They said ostensibly that food and medicines have been exempted from sanctions. They are lying.

In order to buy food and medicine, we need to go through banking transactions. And even when banks are allowed to carry on proceeds of medical transactions, how do we pay? They have sanctions on everything. They have sanctioned oil, petrochemicals, fertilisers, manufactured goods and even on the construction sector. We have to be able to engage in trade in order to pay.

Which country in right mind will allow US to succeed? But all this is linked to Iran’s decision to go nuclear, violate the NPT thereby destabilising this region. Western nations fear Iran will go ahead and produce a nuclear weapon?

If we had wanted to build a nuclear weapon, we would have done it when we were under UN sanctions.

We have paid the price from 2007-12, when we started negotiations. We paid more than the price. We could have built it then when we did not have such IAEA inspections. No one has had more intrusive IAEA inspections than us.

We had an agreement with the US and four present members of the Security Council to ensure we would not build nuclear weapons. (President) Trump did not like Obama. He did not like what he did. He withdrew from that deal.

While talking about regional behaviour, look at what is happening in our region. Who supported the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001-2002? Who supported the Al Qaeda? Who supported Saddam Hussain when he invaded Iran? Who supported the IS? Can you anywhere find the name of Iran?

Ostensibly the US fought on the same side as Iran against IS and Al Qaeda. But it was the US allies who were supporting Taliban. Only three countries recognised the Taliban as a legitimate government. They were Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan in the 1990s as a legitimate government. We supported the Northern Alliance which was recognised by the UN.

If we talk about dangerous behaviour, who is bombing Yemen? Is Iran bombing Yemen or is Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen which presently has the worst case of cholera in the world. Are we involved in Sudan? Libya? North Africa? Are we creating turmoil in these countries? The only common denominator is Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Iran is not in any of these countries. We are a source of stability in this area. President Trump has himself said Saudi Arabia supported IS. He has himself said, Iran fought IS. He recently said as US troops withdrew from Syria that Iran and Russia would fight IS.

Look at the facts on the ground. Who tried to suffocate Qatar? Who came to the help of Qatar when it was being suffocated? Was Qatar an ally of Iran? No, Qatar was always an adversary. Qatar was supporting Saudi Arabia in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. But when they ran into a difficulty, Iran came to their help. You cannot build stories on lies? You cannot build a policy on lies.

You mentioned sanctions have hit food and medicines? How badly has this hit the common man on the street?

Human Rights Watch has issued a report on how coercive economic measures have hit import of food and medicines. The Special Representative of Human Rights Council issued a report on the impact of US sanctions. The impact is there. The US special representative has said they want the Iranian government to obey and bend. You have the intent and you have the results. That is the whole range you need to prove criminal activity. We accuse the US of engaging in crimes against humanity.

Thankfully, we produce 97 per cent of our medicine. We only depend on imports for a very small percentage of very sophisticated medicine, three per cent of our needs. For example, we import bandages for kids with EBS. Only one or two companies in the world produce bandaids for use by these kids. We have the technology, but it is not economical to produce these. We need to buy the medicines from Sweden, but the company is not willing to sell it to us.

But for 97 per cent of our medicine, we are self-sufficient. We even export very sophisticated medicine at much lower costs than western pharma companies. The pharma industry is not happy with us. They are sucking the blood of people. The health business is a huge business and it is not one of the most humanitarian business.

Is there an alliance brewing between Iran, Russia and China?

I don’t call it an alliance, I call it a common understanding. We are all targets. The attempt of the US is to act as an impediment. The days of global hegemony are over, but the US will not stop trying. This being the case, President Trump needs Modi’s votes in Texas.

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