Iran hit back at US President Donald Trump’s call for new nuclear negotiations that encompass its ballistic missiles programme, accusing Washington of bringing the Middle East to the brink of “explosion” by selling arms to allies in the Gulf.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, made the comments in a wide-ranging interview that aired on NBC News on Monday.
He said Iran would only sit down with the United States if it lifted punishing economic sanctions it has imposed on Tehran and rejoined the 2015 nuclear deal it abandoned last year.
Trump pulled the US out of the landmark multilateral accord saying he wanted to negotiate a new deal that also addressed Iran’s ballistic missiles programme and support for armed groups in the region.
Zarif, who is in New York City on a visit to the United Nations, told NBC it was the US and its allies – Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – who were to blame for turmoil in the Middle East.
“If you want to discuss ballistic missiles, then we need to discuss the amount of weapons sold to our region,” he said.
“Last year, Iran spent $16bn altogether on its military, we have an 82 million population. UAE with a million population spent $22bn. Saudi Arabia – with less than half of [Iran’s] population – spent $67bn, most of them are American [arms].
“These are American weaponry that is going into our region, making our region ready to explode. So if they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons including missiles to our region.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday Iran had signaled it was ready to negotiate about its ballistic missiles during a White House Cabinet meeting. Trump remarked: “We’ll see what happens. But a lot of progress has been made.”
His assessment drew a quick denial from the spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, who posted on Twitter: “Iran’s missiles … are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period.”
‘Door wide open’
When NBC journalist Lester Holt further pressed Zarif on the issue, referring to Iran’s support for armed groups in the region, the minister brought up the Saudi-led interventions in Yemen and Bahrain.
“Let me ask you – who’s bombing Yemen? Who’s invading Bahrain? Who kept the prime minister of another country a prisoner,” Zarif asked.
“Are we involved at all in North Africa? … Why do you have chaos in Libya? Is Iran involved in Libya? … in Sudan? … in Algeria? Why do we have all this turmoil? I believe if you want to look at the right place for those who have malign activity in our region, the US needs to look at its own allies, not at Iran.”
Zarif, who has been hit by tight travel restrictions while in New York, reiterated Iran did not want a war with the US and urged Trump to lift the crippling measures against Tehran to begin talks.
“Once those sanctions are lifted, then … the door for negotiations is wide open,” Zarif said. “It is the United States that left the bargaining table. And they’re always welcome to return.”
In the year since the US exited the nuclear deal – a move opposed by the pact’s remaining signatories – Washington has tightened sanctions on Iran, including on its oil and banking sectors.
In May, Washington also sent warships, bombers and thousands of additional troops to the Gulf, citing unspecified threats from Iran. Tensions have since soared, with the US calling off air raids against Iran at the last minute after Tehran downed a US spy plane that it said encroached on its airspace in June, a claim Washington denies.
When asked if Trump’s decision to halt air raids amounted to a diplomatic overture, Zarif said: “It’s not an overture if you decide not to commit another act of aggression against a country that is capable of defending itself.”
Vowing to continue resisting “aggression”, Zarif said Iranians will “find a way to circumvent the pressure through relying on their own resources, on their own capabilities, and on their own talent”.
The Islamic Republic, which has been under a variety of sanctions since its founding in 1979, invested in its ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes because of those sanctions, he added. But he warned: “Of course when there is tension, there is tension for everybody. Nobody is immune in a tense environment.”
The new US sanctions have plunged the Iranian economy into crisis, and caused a shortage in critical medicines, Zarif said, a move he said has put Iranian people under “huge humanitarian pressure”.
“They are terrorising our people. They are targeting ordinary Iranian civilians. That’s worse than war,” he added.
No ‘regime change’
Trump on Tuesday said the United States is not pushing to topple Iran’s leadership but is determined to stop it acquiring nuclear weapons.
“We are not looking for regime change. We are not looking for that at all,” he said, though adding, “They can’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Iran’s supreme leader upped the ante in the volatile stand-off with the US, warning Tehran would continue removing restraints on its nuclear programme.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the nuclear deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran’s oil exports blocked by US sanctions.
“According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them. Now that we’ve begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent. You didn’t abide by your commitments,” Khamenei said, according to his website.
“We have started to reduce our commitments and this trend shall continue,” Khamenei said in remarks carried by state television.
Iran has long denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons, and has said all its breaches could be reversed if Washington returned to the deal and its economic dividends were realised. Tehran has accused Washington of waging “economic war”.
“Western governments’ major vice is their arrogance,” Khamenei said. “If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works. But if it’s a country that knows and stands up against them, they will be defeated.”