In this program, TOLOnews’ Lotfullah Najafizada has interviewed Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about Afghanistan-Iran relations, Iran’s ties with the Taliban, the Afghan peace process, the Afghan refugees’ situation in Iran and other current topics.
Below is the full transcript (original is in Farsi).
Lotfullah Najafizada (LN): Hello. Afghan-Iran relations have had many ups and downs. A common history, culture and language between the two nations has been overshadowed by politics, Afghanistan’s relations with the US, the Afghan refugees’ situation in Iran and Iran’s relations with the Taliban. Is Iran in favor of the Republic or it is a friend of the Taliban? What is Iran’s actual policy toward Afghanistan? Who is the real decision-maker of this policy? Iran’s Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Does Afghanistan’s friendship with anti-Iran America mean friendship with Iran or enmity? My guest on this program is Iran Foreign Minister Mr. Javad Zarif.
LN: Thank you for the opportunity.
Javad Zarif (JZ): In the name of God, I pass on my Salam to you and your dear viewers, our good brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.
LN: Mr. Zarif, is Afghanistan an occupied country--by the US?
JZ: We see Afghanistan as an independent country that has made many achievements in the areas of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of minorities over the past 19 years, since the Bonn conference in 2001. People’s participation to decide their fate is a reality in Afghanistan and we must recognize this reality. These are the events that happened in the past. We have always opposed the presence of foreign troops in the region.
LN: But the word occupation has been sometimes used by Iranian officials.
JZ: As I mentioned, we see the presence of foreign troops, whether they are in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in any other country, as forces that disrupt the peace and security in the region, but we are not making decisions separate from the governments of these countries. Their governments are independent and make their own decisions. The decision is made by the people.
LN: You helped this (foreign) presence at the Bonn Conference in 2001. You were present there. You helped in the process to allow the US to come to Afghanistan.
JZ: No, we did not contribute to the US presence in Afghanistan, we contributed to establishing an independent and democratic government in Afghanistan. First, the Bonn Conference followed the US presence in Afghanistan. It was held after the resistance of the Afghan people--the Northern Alliance backed by the US and Iran--toppled the previous government. The government that was recognized by the United Nations, [as a result] was reestablished in Kabul. But at the Bonn Conference, we helped diverse Afghan groups to shape a democratic future for Afghanistan. Perhaps your point is that the two key actors, Iran and the United States, were helping leaders of the groups establish their presence in the conference to shape a democratic future for Afghanistan.
LN: Following the Bonn Conference, the UN Security Council endorsed the presence of the foreign troops, including US forces, in Afghanistan and they are still in the country. Has Iran’s [foreign] policy on Afghanistan undergone any serious change after the death of Qasim Soleimani?
JZ: Our policy towards Afghanistan has never changed and it has been always to support the Afghan government and the Afghan people. We are of the opinion that all Afghan groups should decide Afghanistan’s future. This policy is the policy of [Iran’s] government. This was neither my policy nor that of the martyred Soleimani. However, I want to reiterate that Soleimani, in the Bonn Conference, played a crucial role as I did, if not more, in bringing democracy to Afghanistan.
JN: Following Soleimani’s death, you called on the Americans to pull their forces out of the region.
JZ: We have always called for [US withdrawal from the region]. We said that the assassination of the martyred Soleimani would accelerate the withdrawal of US forces from the region. And we saw it in Iraq. Iraq’s parliament voted for the withdrawal of the US forces.
JN: Do you want to [implement the same strategy] in Afghanistan?
JZ: We want a lawful and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan that should be based on the demands of the Afghan people and it should be a responsible security transition to the Afghan forces. We do not want it in the current form as the Americans go and negotiate with the Taliban.
LN: We will discuss the talks. It’s important. But about the US presence in Afghanistan. Don’t you think it has helped Iran’s national security?
JZ: We don’t think so. We do not have this perception. The foreign [military] presence sparks some internal [national] feelings in every country that the radicals and extremists exploit to serve their terroristic purposes. This is a reality and we saw it in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started to operate [its Jihadi terrorist group] in Iraq after such a presence. The US presence in Afghanistan hurt the feelings of some groups in Afghanistan that were then exploited by Daesh, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban movement.
LN: You didn’t have an embassy during the rule of the Taliban—who killed eight of your colleagues, including a journalist—in Mazar-e-Sharif. But you have had an active role over the past 20 years in Afghanistan.
JZ: During the Taliban rule, we had ties with the government led by the slain Ustad [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, which was recognized as the official Afghan government by the United Nations. We did actively cooperate with the Northern Alliance, the lawful government of Afghanistan.
LN: Security cooperation against the Taliban? But wasn’t it the [Afghan] foreign ministry you would cooperate with?
JZ: We had close ties with Dr. Abdullah who then served as the foreign minister. Before leaving for the Bonn Conference, I met with Abdullah in Tehran and heard comments of Afghanistan’s official government from Mr. Abdullah. Following the meeting, I attended the Bonn Conference. So, we have always had ties with legal governments of Afghanistan and we are happy for having played an active role over the past 20 years with the legitimate government of Afghanistan, which was formed on a democratic basis and with the observation of people’s rights. This active cooperation included--but was not limited to--the Bonn Conference, Tokyo Conference, and the inauguration of the Khaf-Herat railway line, our most recent achievement in our ties.
LN: It was really a great achievement. What is the shared promise between Iran and the US in Afghanistan?
JZ: We have our own stance. Currently, we do not exactly know what the US position in Afghanistan is. If it is what is reflected in their talks with the Taliban and in their agreement with the Taliban, we certainly oppose it. We see that as a dangerous act. It is not in the interest of the Afghan people. It is just an internal decision [of internal value] to justify the US withdrawal.
LN: We will discuss US presence and withdrawal.
JZ: But if you want to find Iran’s shared position, our stance is clear. Our stance is that the Afghan people, including the Taliban, should decide their future.
LN: The US also says that!
JZ: But the US left [shifted side]. We have never sat with a foreign group to decide about the future of Afghanistan.
LN: We will also discuss in detail your relations with the Taliban. There are many questions on details about your ties with Taliban as well.
JZ: We will surely work with the Taliban. But we do not sit with them to decide about the future of Afghanistan and sign an agreement.
LN: Your points are not clear. I have many questions. How do you define the Taliban? Is the Taliban a terrorist group? Is the Taliban an insurgent group? How does Iran define the Taliban?
JZ: As you pointed out, the Taliban killed eight of my colleagues before doing so with others. Therefore, our definition of the Taliban is that the Taliban has committed many terrorist acts. Before naming the Taliban as terrorists, the Taliban is a group in Afghanistan that has committed terrorist acts and it is necessary now to consider the Taliban as part of a future solution, not (the whole) future solution for Afghanistan. There is a big difference in it.
LN: But, in your calculation, the Taliban, as a group, is not a terrorist group?
JZ: Look, the Taliban has committed many terrorist acts. Regarding recognition of the Taliban as a terrorist group, we have not removed the Taliban [from our list of] terrorist groups, in our laws.
LN: Then they are [a terrorist group]?
JZ: They are as they are in the United Nations’ laws. We follow the United Nations.
LN: Then the Taliban are a terrorist group?
JZ: We do follow exactly what is decided by the UN Security Council. But we do believe that the Taliban is a reality in the future. I want to point out two realities. We have two realities in Afghanistan; the Taliban is a reality. But what has occurred in the past 19 years – the achievements made by the Afghan people, democracy, rights of minority groups, women’s rights – are all realities too.
LN: Maybe bigger than the Taliban?
JZ: Maybe, bigger than the Taliban. The Taliban cannot deny the reality of the past 20 years or ignore it just by claiming that they control swaths of Afghanistan territories and decide the future of Afghanistan.
LN: We will have questions about the future of the Taliban and Afghanistan. You pointed to the killing of your eight colleagues in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, are you willing to take revenge from the Taliban or you have forgiven them?
JZ: We have neither forgiven nor have we forgotten. On taking revenge or not, we decided it then. You may remember that our troops were stationed across the border. A war was about to erupt. The Iranian government, however, concluded that such a war would certainly harm the Afghan people, not only the Taliban. Therefore, we withdrew from waging war and taking revenge. But neither did we forgive [the Taliban] nor did we forget it. It’s a pain we tolerated for the sake of the Afghan people. If we wanted to take revenge, we should have acted militarily. But we concluded that the military act was harmful for the Afghan people and for Iran’s people.
LN: Does the US-Taliban closeness harm Iran?
JZ: What is harmful for Iran and Afghanistan is that the US signs an agreement with the Taliban and wants to impose it on the Afghan people.
LN: We have asked our Afghan officials, the Afghan President, but we want to know Iran’s stance!
JZ: It is also our stance. Our stance is that the US must facilitate intra-Afghan talks and avoid contacting a group other than Afghans and make a deal. And get things to a phase where the group does not accept any other basis rather than their own agreement with the US.
LN: You also have ties with the Taliban and have already confirmed it. But Afghan officials, including the former Afghanistan chief of army staff in 2017, claimed that you (Iran) are militarily supplying the Taliban, training them, and treating wounded militants, like the ISI.
JZ: We do not do any of those three things. We do not supply them militarily, we do not treat the wounded Taliban, but we have serious talks with them. I personally met Mullah Baradar in Tehran. Just like officials of other countries met the Taliban delegation either in Doha or in their respective capitals. Unfortunately, the Afghan government does not have control over a large border area between Iran and Afghanistan and we are obliged to defend our people.
LN: The Taliban are your partners? On the other side of the border, the Taliban are your neighbors?
JZ: The Taliban have a presence. But I don’t know how to name it.
LN: Then you have security cooperation?
JZ: We have taken the Afghan government on board as we made exchanges with the Taliban. In many cases, when the government needed help, we provided help. We have explained everything in detail in a recent visit of Mr. Araghchi to Kabul.
LN: What did you exchange with the Taliban?
JZ: We shared demands raised by the Afghan government with the Taliban.
LN: Are you a mediator between the Taliban and Afghanistan?
JZ: No, we are not a mediator. We are a neighbor and Afghanistan is important for us. Afghanistan’s future is important and we want its future as I explained to you.
LN: If you support the Afghan peace process, as you said, why you didn’t participate in the meeting held on September 12, which was attended by your counterparts from across the world?
JZ: We issued a statement in support of the peace process in Afghanistan before the meeting was held. It sounded a lot like a protest!
LN: You protested US management.
LN: You protested.
JZ: No. We did protest US management. I said, we do not accept the US policy in this regard.
LN: But there was not a single country to protest it!
JZ: They have their own ideas. As I said, we respect the Afghan government’s view.
LN: The Afghan government was aligned with the world, attended the meeting, and, your friend, Abdullah was also present at the meeting!
JZ: You are right. I did also talk to Dr. Abdullah before and after the meeting. We issued a statement in support of the meeting. But we will not participate in an electoral campaign program of the United States. The meeting turned out to be an electoral campaign with the presence of Mr. Pompeo. From our perspective, Mr. Trump sacrificed Afghanistan for the sake of his election campaign, and we will realize the very great harm he inflicted on Afghanistan in the future.
LN: I have another question regarding your ties with the Taliban. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, former leader of the Taliban, had been to Iran before being killed. Why?
JZ: We have never claimed that we do not have relations with the Taliban. Mr. Mullah Baradar also came to Iran and met Iran’s foreign minister. Likewise, he might also have had some meetings with our authorities. We have never hidden it. The Afghan government is also aware of it.
LN: But it was before the start of peace talks.
JZ: You are right. All [the countries] had ties with the Taliban before the start of the peace talks. Do you think that the US developed relations with the Taliban after the peace talks?
LN: No. But we know less about what Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was doing [in Iran]? What [did his trip to Iran] contribute to the peace process?
JZ: To my knowledge, his trip [to Iran] was just a transit, under an alias.
LN: A two-month transit?
JZ: I do not know it.
LN: Didn’t you meet him?
JZ: No, I didn’t. The first time I met a Taliban official was when I attended the Islamic Conference in Jeddah as a mediator between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. I think the man I met was the Taliban’s minister of information. It was my first meeting with a Taliban official. My second meeting with a Taliban official was with Mullah Baradar in Tehran.
LN: Your ties look too old.
JZ: That meeting was organized by the Afghanistan committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC’s Afghanistan committee consisted of Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, and some other countries. They were striving to make peace between [warring] groups in Afghanistan and I attended the conference as representative of Khatami, who was then chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. I chaired the meeting.
LN: Do the Taliban leaders have houses in Iran in Mashhad and Zahedan?
JZ: I do not know. Some people, who have relations with the Taliban, might move back and forth to Iran. But they certainly do not run any headquarters or base in Iran.
LN: Something like the Mashhad Council and Zahedan Committee…
JZ: I have also heard about it, but I do not really have information about it.
LN: It’s your country!
JZ: Yes, it is.
LN: You don’t have the information, or you reject its existence?
JZ: We have three million refugees from Afghanistan in Iran.
LN: This is the same thing the Pakistanis say.
JZ: No. I explained the type or our relations with the Taliban. We neither created the Taliban, nor did we recognize them [their government]. You might remember that there were three countries who recognized the Taliban government – Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. We did not recognize it. Therefore, our relations with the Taliban come from a necessity for their presence along our borders.
LN: In the peace talks in Doha, the Taliban took a provocative stance on Jafari jurisprudence. Did you hear about it?
JZ: We learned that the Taliban had raised Jafari jurisprudence as a [right] for a religious minority group.
LN: Is it concerning for you?
JZ: Yes, surely it is concerning.
LN: Explain, please, how?
JZ: Afghanistan’s constitution recognizes all Islamic jurisprudences as official. If the Taliban treat Afghanistan’s Shias as a minority group, like Christians or followers of Buddhism, it is in contradiction to Islamic values, based on belief of every believer who believes in an Islamic government.
LN: Does Iran want to act on how to deal with this stance?
JZ: This is the responsibility of the Afghan people. I think we have our own idea, but it is the people of Afghanistan who should make decisions about their future.
LN: Mr. Zarif, do you think the establishment of a political system in Afghanistan—as some would describe it as a Sunni version of the ruling system in Iran— would cause trouble for Iran?
JZ: We have an Islamic Republic here. We would appreciate it if someone establishes its Sunni version. But the Islamic Emirate is not certainly its Sunni version.
LN: What is it?
JZ: We believe that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as stipulated in the Constitution based on the people’s votes, is the solution that existed over the past 20 years. Our idea and suggestion are that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the current Constitution should be recognized as the basis for a future [government] of Afghanistan. But, I have to repeat that we cannot make a decision in this regard, this is what that the Afghan people should decide on.
LN: Can we draw parallel analogies between Emirate and Velayat-e-Faqih?
JZ: They are two different subjects. Let me make it clear, I am neither a Faqih, an Islamic jurist, nor an expert of Islamic laws, I am an international lawyer, and [I] have no expertise in this field, but I think and dare say that Emirate and Velayat-e-Faqih are two ways of ruling.
LN: It means that if there is a president in Afghanistan then there should be an emir-ul-Muminin, someone higher than him.
JZ: Look, it depends on the votes of the people of Afghanistan. When people’s votes are decisive, in an Islamic republic, even a supreme leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts, [an assembly] which is elected by the people. In the [setup of the] Islamic Republic of Iran, we have no permanent and unelected position.
LN: Except the Supreme Leader?
JZ: No, in accordance with Iran’s constitution, the Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts and the assembly can remove him.
LN: But again, he is not elected in a direct election.
JZ: Direct election--is the Electoral College [a] direct election in America? What happened in the US that we saw yesterday?
LN: Yes, we followed. We don’t want to compare. Though you are more interested in the US topic. Do you have doubt in the Taliban’s will for peace?
JZ: In Peace?
JZ: I think, the Taliban looks ready to have a peace settlement by their own principles. Peace settlement means reconciliation with every party, otherwise, it is victory in war; victory in war is different from what we call a peace settlement. The Taliban, I think, should pursue a peace settlement, which means recognizing current realities, recognizing all parties’ perspectives, rather than saying that we will agree to a peace settlement when all parties surrender to us.
LN: Do you think the Taliban has such an intension or you are not sure?
JZ: I am sure about their first intension--the Taliban want other parties to follow their (Taliban) principles--and I hope they would move side by side with other parties, but I am not sure whether they would agree to do so.
LN: Did you not remind your guest, Mullah Baradar?
JZ: I told him that time, and I will tell him if I happen to meet him again. The Islamic Republic of Iran is characteristically vocal in mentioning its stance [to others]. We do not feel hesitation in mentioning our stance.
LN: Do you see any international setup coming into being with Iran taking a key part in it?
JZ: We are convinced that a regional initiative can be helpful for Afghanistan. For instance, we took part in the 6+2 group, which a coalition of Afghanistan-neighboring nations albeit there were other nations too. We cannot accept others making decisions, we get sidelined and approve their decisions. We believe Afghanistan, first of all, should be participating in any regional initiative. Second, Afghan peace should be led by Afghanistan. No outsider, from any foreign country, should be allowed to make decisions for Afghanistan, instead of Afghanistan. Thirdly, the neighbors are the closest countries that benefit or get disadvantaged from the situation in Afghanistan, I mean, from drug trafficking to migration and insecurity. It is the neighboring countries that are exposed to risk; for that reason, Afghanistan’s neighboring countries should make a pivotal circle—I mean with the Afghan government being at the center of it—and the second circle should consist of those nations that want to donate. We will participate in such as setup and appreciate such an initiative.
LN: Do you welcome Qatar’s hosting of the Afghan peace process?
JZ: We have very good relations with Qatar. We are ready to cooperate with Qatar albeit within an appropriate framework. Today, we had a good conversation with Qatar on the future of Afghanistan. I contacted the Qatari foreign minister when I decided to take this regional initiative.
LN: Did you inform Afghans?
JZ: Sure, actually after having a telephonic conversation with Mr. Atmar, I took the initiative. Mr. Atmar is my brother and an old friend; we have good relations and friendly cooperation since he was serving as National Security Adviser. I dare say it was a joint initiative taken by both of us—me and Mr. Atmar.
LN: Afghans say, on the one hand, you say the Americans should withdraw, on the other, you say that they should withdraw responsibly; on one hand, you say Iran supports peace but you don’t attend the peace inauguration. On one hand, you say that the Republic and the Constitution are important, but you have relations with the Taliban. The question is, what is Iran’s policy? Who makes the decisions? There are different forces. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds, the intelligence, the foreign ministry? Who is the main decision maker on Iran’s policy on Afghanistan?
JZ: What shapes foreign policy in every nation is a national consensus. In Afghanistan, you have the National Security Council, the President, the foreign minister and other authorities, but, ultimately, you have a single foreign policy coming out. It is the same in Iran. Iran’s policy is what I explain to you. The fact that there are different actors in Iran, they are there for sure.
LN: They have widespread presence.
LN: They have serious presence.
JZ: Sure, they have. Afghanistan is our neighbor. We were about to fight when Iran’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif came under Taliban attack in the late 1990s, it is a serious issue for us, you did not point to everything. On the matter of Afghanistan, from the Ministry of Energy, which also chairs a joint commission, to the home ministry, which is in-charge of Afghan refugees, and from the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, which sponsors 23,000 Afghan students, to the Ministry of Education, which has 480,000 Afghan students, they all play a role. But Iran’s Afghan policy, with all its dimensions and suspects, as you pointed out, is that the people of Afghanistan, in inclusive decision-making [process], should decide the future of their country. The Taliban is part of Afghanistan’s future, they are the future of the country.
LN: You were not present in Doha.
JZ: I was not present in the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan talks because we were not in favor of the method of America. We still do not favor it, and we will not participate if it takes place again.
LN: Even if the Afghans ask you to participate?
JZ: Look, we are supporting Afghanistan. Iran, perhaps, is the only country that clearly says that Afghanistan’s future political setup should be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, we say Afghanistan’s hard gains of the last 20 years should not be compromised—they should make the foundation of a future setup. It means, we are standing by the people of Afghanistan and the Afghan government. Others are not like us.
LN: Do you deny that there is one government but two players in Iran, or a single player and a double policy?
JZ: We have one unified policy as I explained. I clarified why we have developed relations with the Taliban. When we support the government of Afghanistan, we negotiate with it—let me make it clear, we all are present; in some conversations our IRGC friends are present, and in others our friends from intelligence.
LN: But who was in the driving seat of [Iran’s policy] in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon?
JZ: The shaper of the policy is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It means that the leadership, the President, the high council of national security and other national agencies make Iran’s foreign policy and implement it with insider actors.
LN: What was Mr. Soleimani doing in Iraq?
JZ: Mr. Soleimani was in Iraq, helping the Iraqi government in the fight against extremism and Daesh, and that was why he was martyred on his way to meeting the Iraqi prime minister. Mr. Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated that he was scheduled to meet him. Is it not possible for Iranian authorities, our Quds commander, and the chief of our intelligence, to visit Iraq and meet Iraqi authorities?
LN: But Ismail Qaani, a former Quds deputy, paid a visit to Afghanistan. He went to Bamiyan and met with the Bamiyan governor who received him as [Iran’s] deputy ambassador [in Afghanistan].
JZ: I do not know anything about [Bamiyan] governor’s supposition, however, Mr. Qaani is a well-known personality. He had contacts with Afghan friends, and still has and will have. Afghan authorities know him and keep contact with him, and they meet him often as they visit Tehran, we appreciate these meetings. I think for us it good to have contact with the whole Afghanistan, and this contact is a very important contact. I think the role Sardar Soleimani played with late Rabbani in the Bonn conference for the future of Afghanistan was perhaps better than our role.
LN: That is why I ask who really makes Iran’s foreign policy?
JZ: I explained. We are working in a harmony. You know that it was I who made [the subjects of] democracy and counterterrorism part of the agenda in the Bonn conference. You can read it in a book written by the US envoy in the Bonn conference. He writes that Zarif came and told us if we were not willing to make democracy and counterterrorism part of agenda… We did all these in full agreement with Sardar Soleimani.
LN: Do you think, with the Taliban returning to Afghanistan, the country will fall into the hands of an anti-Iran terrorist group?
JZ: Afghanistan’s future, we believe, must be in the grasp of the people of Afghanistan, with all parties in the lead. We believe the Taliban alone is not capable of governing Afghanistan and [we are convinced Afghanistan] will not return to the 1990s.
LN: What if they take power in government?
JZ: It is up to the people of Afghanistan. I do not elect the Afghan president, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to do it. No one in Iran does such work.
LN: And you will not face security problems?
JZ: We respect any decision made by Afghans if it is based on the country’s constitution, the Islamic republic system, with consideration for the achievements made over the last 20 years.
LN: Why do you send Afghans to the Syrian war?
JZ: We do not send anyone to Syria.
LN: You sent 25,000 Afghans.
JZ: Look, I made it clear, nobody goes to war on behalf of a foreign country to a third country. Our brothers would go to [Syria] voluntarily. Some Iraqis went and some from other countries took part in [the war in Syria].
LN: But you facilitated them.
JZ: In Syria, we helped [the anti-Daesh front]. Daesh is a common enemy to all of us.
LN: You armed them although you say the Afghans should make a decision on their own.
JZ: They went to fight for their beliefs. Some of them erected Afghanistan’s flag in their outposts and displayed the photograph of the Afghan president. They are the best forces with a military background in the fight against Daesh. The Afghan government, if willing, can regroup them.
LN: What for?
JZ: For the fight against Daesh and for the fight against terrorism and for the protection of Afghanistan security.
LN: Inside Afghanistan?
JZ: Wherever the Afghan government wants.
LN: Where are these forces?
JZ: Most of them have rejoined normal life. As now the war is over in Syria, they have rejoined normal life--working.
LN: Where, in Iran?
JZ: Maybe, they are in Iran or perhaps they are not in Iran.
LN: How many are their exact numbers?
JZ: I have learned the same number as you say.
JZ: I have heard 5,000-- that less than 2,000 of them are in Syria.
LN: You are an international relations expert, where in the world have you seen [a government] recruiting refugees and sending them to a third country [to fight a proxy war]?
JZ: The hypothesis you are drawing is not correct; first of all, most of them were not refugees, they came from Afghanistan and went there. Perhaps, they might have gone to other places too.
LN: If I want to take up arms, will you send me to Syria?
JZ: We may arm you when you end up in Syria.
LN: You do not arm me here?
JZ: As they went to Syria to join the anti-Daesh forces, we, without any hesitation, supported all resistance forces against terrorism and extremism.
LN: Do you know the number of casualties inflicted on the Afghans in Syria?
JZ: I do not know the exact number, but we give compensation to their families. We support the families of those who get martyred—for their cause and ideals, we support their families.
LN: Under the Iranian rule, the Afghans are not allowed to subscribe to a mobile sim card, in some places they are not allowed to attend schools; they are killed [by Iranian forces] on the street; they are not allowed to visit parks or other public spaces. It is interesting that they could have free movement and go to Syria to fight?
JZ: For a second time, your hypothesis is not correct. In Iran, the Afghans, our Afghan brothers and sisters, are allowed to attend schools and literacy courses. We have 480,000 Afghan students, we have over 20,000 Afghan adults, especially Afghan women, who attend literacy courses, there are 23,000 Afghan students in Iran, and we have 500 Afghan students who are studying medical science. We are honored to see most Afghan authorities having studied their graduate and postgraduate studies in Iran. It is indeed an honor for us to have been in the service of our Afghan brothers and sisters. I am sad to say that in some cases, things have happened to those human traffickers who put 12 people in a car that can barely carry four people, and put everything at risk. Those Iranians who commit such a deed would put their lives at risk. Our policy has always allowed the Afghan migrants and refugees, documented and undocumented, to benefit from our facilities. There was a minor problem: some of our Afghan brothers, who had bank accounts at Bank Saderat Iran, were not issued bank cards.
LN: Can they have their bank cards now?
JZ: My colleagues raised this issue and took it to the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran (CBIRI), and the CBIRI issued a directive but banks have opposed it citing reservations about money laundering. We are taking the issue to the high council against money laundering, and we want to obtain a permission that allows the issuance of bank card for those Afghans who have bank accounts in Iranian banks. Take into consideration that Iranians also cannot have bank accounts in many countries though they are there on visas and have passports.
LN: But you know that opening a bank account is difficult for some Afghans who have lived here for 40 years. You are interested in making an analogy with the US--if you spend five years in the US, they will grant you citizenship.
JZ: No, I disagree. Go to the US and see how Mr. Trump’s wife closes bank accounts of Iranians who are born in the US.
LN: Maybe, it is on account of their association with Iran.
JZ: No, it is due to their Iranian ancestry. I do not claim we are perfect, but I dare claim that we have been a good host to nearly three million Afghan refugees who have been in Iran in the most difficult years of our history. There are 120,000 Afghan refugees who have health insurance in Iran. They can benefit from food and transport subsidies. I do not say the Afghan refugees own much to us, they are our brothers and sisters, they are our guests, I hope one day the situation in Afghanistan gets better and they return to their country and serve their country. We are happy, we have always been happy, to host the Afghans.
LN: But Iran will never become a home for Afghans.
LN: Iran will never become a home for Afghans.
JZ: See, nowhere other than the motherland becomes your home. There are Iranians who have lived for years in the US.
LN: You were also there.
JZ: I too have lived there. But I never felt like I was at home. My children were born in America but never felt that American is their home and now they are proudly living in Iran. The Afghans are our guests here, I hope one day they will return to their country. Nowhere feels like home.
LN: Has the Fatemiyoun “project” been stopped?
JZ: I clearly explained. We supported people to fight against Daesh in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala so that no one should be forced to fight against Daesh in Kabul and Kandahar. For that reason, we supported them in Tehran, Zahedan, and Kirman Shah or in Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf. But the threat [which was posed by Daesh] is being removed--it is not completely removed. The Afghan government is fully informed that we are prepared to help the Afghan government regroup these forces under the leadership of the Afghan National Army in the fight against terrorism.
LN: Do you back the idea of Fatemiyoun forces being regrouped against Daesh inside Afghanistan?
JZ: It depends on the Afghan government’s decision. If so, they must fight in Afghanistan under the leadership of the Afghan government as all forces in Syria were fighting under the leadership of the Syrian government. We were supporting them under the leadership of the Syrian government.
LN: Inside Afghanistan, the formation of the Afghan army is not complete, but elsewhere there are plenty of Afghans who fight as proxy forces.
JZ: I disagree. I explained. In Syria, we were supporting them under the leadership of Hafiz Bashar Assad. He was making decisions and were implementing them. In Afghanistan, we are prepared to support them under the leadership of the Afghan government.
LN: With a Biden administration in the White House, do you expect talks on JCPOA to resume?
JZ: We believe US policy—strategy of maximum pressure—under the Trump administration failed. It does not necessarily mean they have not put sanctions on Iran and Iranians, yes, they have put pressure, even they have deprived the people of Iran of Covid-19 vaccine, but they failed to achieve their goals. If Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump knew that this strategy did not work, they would have changed it. The United States, as a member of the United Nations, a member of the UN Security Council, is obliged to act on 2031 Resolution, which means they have to lift sanctions. We will act on JCPOA when the US lifts sanctions—it should go beyond rhetoric— when Iran gets a permit to sell oil, and when we are allowed to withdraw our capital, then we would undertake the responsibilities the JCPOA oblige us to. The situation would get normalized.
LN: Will the talks resume?
JZ: Iran does not need negotiations. You fulfill your commitments, we do ours. We have clearly explained our stance.
LN: Are you happy with Biden in the White House?
JZ: I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. It is up to them; they should make this decision. As I explained, if they stick to their rhetoric—issue statement against statement—then again do not lift sanctions and expect us to act, it does not work. If they issue statements, we will issue statements and if they act, we will act.
LN: Are you worried about the Israel-Saudi friendship and the Bahrain crisis?
JZ: We believe it is dangerous if the Zionist regime of Israel, in the fight against Iran, uses our neighbors. It is a dangerous game. We have told our neighbors to be careful, not to get tricked in the trap laden by Israel in the region. They want to fight their war with Iran in this region. It is extremely risky. It is Israel’s propaganda. Israel is not interested in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. It is trying to exploit them. We do want to have friendly relations with our neighbors, and we want to have friendly relations with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and that is why we proposed the Hormuz peace initiative.
LN: I am asking as a journalist in this region. Why was Rohullah Zam executed?
JZ: Our judiciary is independent, and the government does not have any role in verdicts passed by our judiciary.
LN: Are you in its favor?
JZ: But as far as I know, a journalist is the one who publishes news stories. By principle, a journalist should not publish instructions for developing Molotov cocktail bombs on his website.
LN: Do you personally favor the execution?
JZ: As a citizen of Iran, I am obliged to observe the law of my country as every citizen of any country is obliged to observe the laws of his country. The death penalty in countries like Iran is a legal punishment for the heaviest crime. We are happy to see changes being made, especially in the field of drugs. Once we had the highest number of executions in cases of drug trafficking, [now] the number of those who are sentenced to death by law is decreasing. As a teacher who once would teach human rights, I appreciate this change.
LN: My last question. Iran is going to the presidential polls in less than six months. Many told me to ask if you will you run for president?
JZ: This response will be the shortest answer to your question: Absolutely, no.
LN: Are you tired?
JZ: No, I know my capabilities and I don’t see myself as capable to do this job.
LN: Dr. Javad Zarif. Thank you for your time.
JZ: Thank you.