On the basis of the interview with Foreign Minister of Islamic Republic of Iran, Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, conducted by Richard Haass (the moderator) for Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) on 17th July 2017, I like to focus on some points in relation to Iran’s perspective for sanctions and chemical weapons. First of all, I want to underline that Mr. Zarif’s humorous and confident style of conversation while ridiculing conflicts and inconsistencies against Iran that popped out during CFR session was significant. Such style reminded me of Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s statements to US on 19th July 2017 with the following words “Instead of making decisions for other countries, the Secretary of Defense and the American ruling party better think about their own domestic issues and review the causes of the collapse of its administration in the not too distant future.”
Out of the covered subjects on CFR session, two issues, namely new sanctions on Iran and alleged chemical weapons usage in Syria shall be the subject of this article which intended to be reiterated for the prospective articles and essays in the near future. In the meantime, sanctions will be more emphasized rather than the reasons of imposing sanctions. The second issue, explicitly chemical weapons will generate a question at the final part of the article from humanitarian perspective no matter the foreign policy, geopolitical interests, welfares and securities of İran requires so. Purposefully, this article can be deemed as preliminary study in this association.
Sanctions Relieved and Squeezed: US Congress Decision that Might Impose Additional Sanctions on Iran
Factually, the Trump administration slapped new sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals, groups and networks over non-nuclear behavior such as support for ballistic missile development just one day after the administration certified to Congress that Iran is technically complying with the nuclear deal and can endure enjoying nuclear sanctions relief. The Treasury Department is targeted seven groups and five people that aided Iran’s military or its elite Revolutionary Guard. The sanctions also target what the U.S. says is a transnational criminal group based in Iran and three people associated with it. In addition, the State Department targeted two more groups associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program. The sanctions freeze any assets the targets may have in the U.S. and prevent Americans from doing business with them according to Associated Press. Meanwhile, Iran condemned Washington’s sanctions announcement as “contemptible and worthless”.
On the basis of the news on Reuters, on Jul 18th 2017, the United States slapped new economic sanctions against Iran on Tuesday over its ballistic missile program and said Tehran’s “malign activities” in the Middle East undercut any “positive contributions” coming from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. Those sanctioned had backed Iran’s military or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps by developing drones and military equipment, producing and maintaining boats, and procuring electronic components, it said. Others had “orchestrated the theft of U.S. and Western software programs” sold to Iran’s government, the Treasury Department said. Trump administration said Iran was complying with the nuclear agreement, but it was also in default of the spirit of the accord and Washington would look for ways to strengthen it. It was the second time Trump certified Iranian compliance with the agreement since he took office in January, despite having described it as “the worst deal ever” during his 2016 presidential campaign, criticizing then-President Barack Obama whose administration negotiated the accord. “Even as we continue to work to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon, we cannot look away while Iran threatens our country and our allies in ways beyond their nuclear threat”, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Tuesday. Besides, the statement listed Iranian support for groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
On the CFR session on 17th July, a question inquired to Zarif; “I wonder if you could talk about the bills that are making their way through Congress that might impose additional sanctions on Iran. What would constitute, in your mind, a violation of the (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) JCPOA? I mean, what would be that sort of red line where you would say this is, you know, a violation of the agreement, we’re not going to stick with it?”. Question was replied by Zarif as follows: “Well, we will make that decision when time comes. Whether it’s a violation? Of course it’s a violation. I mean, let me tell you something. The United States should reconsider its approach to sanctions. Sanctions have never been an asset for the United States. Sanctions are a liability. You see, when you started imposing nuclear sanctions on Iran—when the U.S., I’m sorry to say you—when the U.S. government started to impose nuclear sanctions against Iran, we only had 200 centrifuges. When they started negotiating with us in order to remove those sanctions, we had 20,000 centrifuges. So if you want to see the results of sanctions, just 19,800 centrifuges is the net result of sanctions. So, the sanctions do not produce outcome. I think people in Washington should get it in their minds: Sanctions are a liability not an asset. But unfortunately for the United States, these sanctions are an asset and they continue to creating more and more of them. And any day that the United States decides to change its policy, there is such a spider web of sanctions that the United States itself will be a prisoner of its own sanctions.”
According to Zarif, as far as the United States is concerned, Iran’s governing bodies believe that, for the United States, it has been, even during the Obama administration, more important to maintain the sanctions that remained rather than remove the sanctions that were lifted. So, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, has been unenthusiastic to provide straightforward answers to those who wanted to do business with Iran because it was worried that a straightforward answer would undermine the sanctions that we had not debated and discussed or agreed to be lifted, sanctions dealing with other issues. Iran believes that they are not justified. But for the OFAC, those were sacrosanct and those were more important than the sanctions that were being lifted. Then, Richard Haass directed a question in a statement format. “You’re talking about sanctions, for example, dealing with terrorism or human rights or other such issues”. “Yeah. And since you mentioned it, it’s important and interesting that Iran is under human rights sanctions and countries who have never heard of elections and behead innocent individuals are your allies and never receive any sanctions, human rights or otherwise. But be that as it may, yeah, I’m referring to those sanctions” replied Zarif with laughter.
Regarding the very challenging query of Haass to Zarif in terms of peaceful transition of the Iranian government while formulating his question as “Secretary Tillerson, I think, again, I’ve got the quote roughly right, recently called for, quote, “supporting elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of the Iranian government.” And several American senators have been less diplomatic and have called for regime change. So my question is, how do you hear that? And what impact does it have on how you see the United States? Zarif underline the fact that the impact is that the US doesn’t learn from history. The U.S. conducted regime change in Iran in 1953 and look what it has created for the United States. The U.S. has been following a regime change policy since the revolution which was officially ceased during the Obama administration. Iran doesn’t believe that it was actually stopped, but it was officially stopped. So he draw the attention to the fact that, the difference between Iran and American allies in the region is that we derive Iran legitimacy and Iran authority and Iran power from Iranian people. The fact is that Iran has been under pressure, Richard, for 38 years. Zarif said “You look around us in the region, everybody has some sort of a foreign umbrella, either NATO or direct U.S. support; Iran doesn’t. How have we survived? How have we survived without any support from outside? It’s because we rely on our own people. It’s because we rely on our own people that we’ve been able to survive regime change, we’ve been able to survive a war. Everybody supported Saddam Hussein. People want to forget that. For eight years we were subjected to a war where everybody supported the other side, from the Soviet Union to the United States to every other permanent member of the Security Council. People spent billions upon billions of dollars. You remember a few weeks ago Saudi Arabia spent $110 billion buying arms for themselves. They purchased $70 billion worth of arms for Iraq during its war against Iran. But we survived. We survived the war. We survived sanctions. We survived Hillary Clinton’s crippling sanctions; the worst types of sanctions ever had been imposed on Iran for many years. We survived that. Why do we survive that? It’s because we can rely on our people, the same people who stand in line for 10 hours to vote for their president, because—General Mattis the other day said that Iranians don’t have a choice, that the Ayatollah chooses the president, and he made a reference that it is as if President Trump would choose the next president of the United States. Come on! People stand in line for 10 hours to vote for a president that had been prechosen?” Then Zarif added his argument, today maybe people in Iran have been brainwashed. People in Los Angeles would stand in line for four hours to choose a president that was predetermined? Come on. Don’t kid yourselves “said to Haass. “Look at the realities. Regime change doesn’t work in Iran, because it’s not a country that is dependent on the United States for its legitimacy, for its survival. We have lived—I mean, not necessarily out of choice, but we have lived in spite of the United States.”, he added.
Historically, in 2013, September the UN has confirmed that the worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years took place in eastern Damascus on 21st Aug 2013 comprising specially designed rockets that spread sarin nerve agent over rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital. Although the report did not assign blame for the attack, the US, Britain and France said the details on the sarin, the rockets used and their trajectories all proved that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible. Conversely, Russia argued that the western powers had “jumped to conclusions” and said claims of rebel use against their own supporters to provoke foreign intervention “should not be shrugged off”. There was also sharp disagreement about what kind of UN resolution was needed to implement the agreement struck by the US and Russia on Saturday in Geneva on dismantling the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme.
Again in history, but mostly the recent Donald Trump denounced the massacre referring to The Khan Shaykhun (Sheikhoun) chemical attack took place on 4 April 2017 as a “heinous” act that “cannot be ignored by the civilized world”. But he also laid some of the responsibility on Barack Obama, saying in a statement that the attack was “a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution”. Theresa May said she was appalled by reports of the attack and called for an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria which is representative of all the Syrian people and I call on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad. We cannot allow this suffering to continue,” she said. UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the latest death toll in Khan Sheikhoun at 72 by 5 April 2017, including 20 children based on news at Guardian on the same day. The Syrian military said it “categorically denied” responsibility. Russia, which has heavily backed the Syrian regime, said its planes were not operating near Idlib. Early on 5th April Wednesday, the Russian defense ministry claimed a Syrian airstrike had hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing an arsenal of “toxic substances” destined for fighters in Iraq. The ministry did not state if the attack was deliberate. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hamish de Bretton Gordon, director of Doctors Under Fire and former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, said this claim was “completely untrue”.
On 17th July 2017, Richard N. Haass, the moderator of the CFR session asked to Mohammad Javad Zarif: “You yourselves have been the victims of the use of chemical weapons. Now you find yourself supporting and embedding a government that’s using chemical weapons. How is it you square that?”. Subsequent reply was as follows; “First of all, we do not believe that any country has a red line on the use of chemical weapons except for Iran. Because when we were the victims of chemical weapons, nobody cared. Everybody actually supported the other side. I used to be a very young—I’m still young—but a very young—(LOL)—diplomat in 1985, going to the president of the Security Council, telling him that chemical weapons were being used in the Iran-Iraq war, and the president of the Security Council told me flatly, I’m not going to listen to you. Now, I would not accept anybody telling me that chemical weapons is a red line for them because I remember that personally, but it is a red line for us, and that is why we have said from the very beginning, that Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons by anybody against anybody. That’s period; I mean, no ifs and butts. However, we believe that allegations of the use of chemical weapons need to be investigated, and there are mechanisms for investigating.
Zarif highlighted the fact that, they have serious doubts that the recent allegations by the United States about the use of chemical weapons against Khan Sheik Hun (Khan Shaykhun) can be verified, and they (referring İran) suggested that the United States should send an investigative team to the region. İran authorities said that if chemical weapons had been used, there are traces. You can find where they were used, how they were used, from which locality they were used, and it would have been easy. It would have been easy for a team to proceed to Khan Sheik Hun[i], and it would have been easy for a team to go to Shayrat Airbase he said. Because if they said they loaded the planes with chemical weapons at the Shay rat Airbase, traces would remain; nobody would be able to remove those traces. You know, we went through six or seven U.S. investigative teams. When we were alleging that Iraq had used chemical weapons, they came to the region, they even went to the warfront, and they were able to determine time and again that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran. It’s not that difficult”, he added. According to Zarif, to determine the traces not difficult but the OPCW, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, refused to go to Shayrat. And he said; executive director of the organization was being asked by himself a few weeks ago when he was in Iran, and Director said they were not supposed to attribute responsibility; they were supposed to only check whether chemical weapons have been used. So, from İran’s perspective, it is unacceptable for anybody to use chemical weapons, but İran does not accept people to be the judge, the prosecutor, the executioner, the investigator, the jury, everything in one person who may need, for a lot of other reasons, to use this as a way to escape a lot of other circumstances that he had found himself in at that time.
Apart from these at the end of the interview, Questions and Answers sessions, one implemented question with a statement has been directed to Zarif by forever pertaining the investigation phase concerning the Chemical Weapons alleged to be used by Syria. “Chemical weapons. I was a bit disturbed by what you said because investigating—they are going to be investigated in Syria by this joint group from the OPCW (Organization) .and the U.N.(United Nations) called the JIM.[ii] And it doesn’t matter what they come up with; Russia will find something wrong. Either they haven’t gone in enough or they’re working with the white helmets, who they say are British spies, and it goes on and on because Syria will be blamed, as it was in the last report that Syria was blamed for using them. So I wonder if you would—if you agree with that, because I can predict now that you’re going to help Russia. The question replied by Zarif as follows; “We requested a team to be sent to Shayrat because the United States claimed that these weapons were based on these airplanes at Shayrat Airbase. That’s why they hit Shayrat with those Tomahawks. So we asked them, send an investigative team to Shayrat, and they couldn’t say that it wasn’t secure because Shayrat was controlled by the government and the government would guarantee security. They didn’t. Now, if they go now and visit Shayrat and find no traces, what would be the conclusion, that traces have vanished or that the allegation from the beginning was bogus? We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean, I was told by the secretary-general that JIM is going—that is going to start the investigation. We believe it’s way too late, but we believe it’s necessary to do the investigation in a serious way. Then consecutive inquisitive statement was being followed from the same person “But it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s going to be rejected.” Replied by Zarif as follows “In a—in a serious way. I mean, it’s too late. It’s too late. They wasted a lot of time in order to do something that was necessary a long time ago. Don’t predict what will happen. Let’s go about it and see where it gets.”
Back to the interview; Zarif highlighted the fact that, Iran has been fighting against extremism in Syria, Afghanistan. Additionally, he claimed that U.S. allies supported extremism in Afghanistan. He reminded the fact that, the only three countries that recognized the Taliban as government were Pakistan, a neighbor; Saudi Arabia; and the UAE. These are the same countries that support terrorism and extremism in Syria, same countries that support terrorism and extremism in Iraq. They have been consistent in supporting terrorism and extremism. Iran has been consistent in objecting to that. They made the wrong choices, and now they’re complaining. Why are they reaping the fruits of their own wrong choices? It’s not our fault that we made the right choice.
Regarding the article in The New York Times[iii], he said he believes —He has a lot of respect for The New York Times, but they didn’t do a fact check, because if one read that article, it is so one-sided that it even tries to attribute the use of chemical weapons on Iran. He said” I mean, not in such a direct way, but it—just read the sentence, please. Read the sentence against a background that seven United Nations reports, one after another, proved that Iraq had used chemical weapons and rejected Iraqi allegations that Iran had used chemical weapons, rejected Iraqi allegations, supported by the United States. Remember the Halabja incident, where a CIA document now shows that the United States sent cables to all its embassies asking them to go and lobby that Iran had used chemical weapons here? I mean, these are facts. I’m not—I’m not—these are not even WikiLeaks. They came—they came before Assange.” So, I mean, these are realities. I mean, these are realities. Our—we have influence in Iraq. We have influence in the region. But we do not believe that influence in this region should be at the expense of excluding others. We believe that everybody should be engaged in the region.
The article on The New York Times on 4th April that Zarif reminded on CFR session, was underlining the following facts which was denied by Syrian regime; “One of the worst chemical bombings in Syria turned a northern rebel-held area into a toxic kill zone on Tuesday, inciting international outrage over the ever-increasing government impunity shown in the country’s six-year war. Western leaders including President Trump blamed the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and called on its patrons, Russia and Iran, to prevent a recurrence of what many described as a war crime. Dozens of people, including children, died — some writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth — after breathing in poison that possibly contained a nerve agent or other banned chemicals, according to witnesses, doctors and rescue workers. They said the toxic substance spread after warplanes dropped bombs in the early morning hours. Some rescue workers grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib province, where the attack took place, said 69 people had died, providing a list of their names. The dead were still being identified, and some humanitarian groups said as many as 100 had died. The government of Mr. Assad, who renounced chemical weapons nearly four years ago after a large chemical attack that American intelligence agencies concluded was carried out by his forces, denied that his military had been responsible, as he has done every time chemical munitions have been used in Syria.” I suppose he meant the Ghouta chemical attack occurred in Ghouta, Syria, during the Syrian Civil War in the early hours of 21 August 2013. Russia offered another explanation. A spokesman for its Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Syrian warplanes had struck an insurgent storehouse containing toxic substances to be used in chemical weapons. Witnesses to the attack said it began before 7 a.m. numerous photographs and graphic videos posted online by activists and residents showed children and older adults gasping and struggling to breathe, or lying motionless in the mud as rescue workers ripped off victims’ clothes and hosed them down. The bodies of at least 10 children lay lined up on the ground or under a quilt.
In my comprehension, from the conversations I deduce the fact that; Iran opposes the use of chemical weapons by anybody against anybody. This is the “red line”. In the meantime, Iran has not only have substantial suspicion about the US claim of the alleged chemical attack, but also may have very few and pale doubt about Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime in this connotation. Rather than speculating on unknown, a step can be taken forward. Further understanding is only possible if a series of inquisitive reformulated questions directed to governing bodies and spokesman of Iran. Based on the fact that Iran and Syria are “close strategic allies” and without Iran’s support the regime would likely have collapsed, a hypothetic question pop-out in one’s mind; “What would change for Iran in terms of supporting Syrian regime, if traces would prove that Syrian regime entirely responsible from the attack?”. Do they want exoneration of Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime for alleged chemical attack or not rather than motivating the authorities to investigate the matter which Iran believes it is too late? To what extent Iran would monitor and support the investigation activities in sense of their available forensic technologies? The assumption here is, the reliability of the traces is 100 percent. So, the questions generated here sounds like “semi-counter-argument” what Zarif said on CFR session,” Now, if they go now and visit Shayrat and find no traces, what would be the conclusion, that traces have vanished or that the allegation from the beginning was bogus?”.
In conclusion, I suppose the corresponding moderators and/ or media people interact with Iranian authorities should ask them “the raised questions mention above”.in the future to kick the chitchats and rumors linked to the chemical attack issue revealed here.
H. Çiğdem YORGANCIOĞLU
[ii] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, https://www.opcw.org/.
[iii] Anne Barnard and Michael R. Gordon (2017), “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad”, The NewYork Times, April 4, 2017 – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/world/middleeast/syria-gas-attack.html.