Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he believes members of the Trump administration and some US allies are seeking a confrontation with Iran.
Zarif pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Adviser John Bolton, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed bin Zayed, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman – dubbing them “the B Team.”
“The B Team is pushing US policy toward a disaster,” Zarif said at the Asia Society in New York during an hour-long conversation in which he proposed a prisoner swap with Washington, ridiculed the US “obsession” with Iran and said President Donald Trump is “mistaken” that pressure will bring Tehran to its knees.
‘Not a plan, but a plot’
Zarif said that he doesn’t believe Trump wants a conflict. “President Trump believes putting pressure, bullying, will bring us to the negotiating table so he can make this ideal deal he has in mind. I don’t know what that deal is,” Zarif said. He added that it won’t be possible to get a better deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that Trump walked away from almost a year ago.
“Then,” Zarif said, “Plan B of the B Team will come in to play. I believe the B Team does not have the same plan as President Trump has… not a plan, but a plot that will cost” trillions, Zarif said, alluding to the cost of US wars in the Middle East.
“The plot is to push Iran into taking action. And then use that,” Zarif said.
“It is not a crisis yet but it is a dangerous situation. Accidents, plotted accidents, are possible. I wouldn’t discount the B team plotting an accident anywhere in the region particularly as we get closer to the election.”
Zarif was speaking in New York days after the Trump administration announced it will end waivers that allow countries to import Iranian oil, opening up the possibility that after the May 2 expiration date, allies such as India, South Korea and Japan could be subject to sanctions if they continue to import Iranian oil.
The Iranian minister used the public appearance at the Asia Society to offer the US a prisoner exchange in which Tehran would return Americans they hold and in return the US would return Iranians in American jails.
“I put this offer on the table now,” he said. “Exchange them… I am ready to do it, and I have authority to do it,” Zarif said, adding that Iran made this offer to the Trump administration six months ago.
“Not a response yet,” Zarif said. “If they tell you anything else, they are lying.”
A State Department official said that “the Iranian regime can demonstrate its seriousness regarding consular issues, including Iranians who have been indicted or convicted of criminal violations of US sanctions laws, by releasing innocent US persons immediately.”
“We call on Iran to free all unjustly detained and missing US persons, including Xiyue Wang, Robert Levinson, Siamak Namazi, and Nizar Zakka, among others,” the official said in a statement.
The official’s statement did not address Zarif’s claims that he had approached the US about an exchange and the US’ lack of response.
The National Security Council did not reply to a request for comment.
A member of the crowd shouted to Zarif that Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist held in Iranian jails for almost two years, was in the room and asked what Zarif had to say to Rezaian about a swap.
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights to get him and his wife out of Iran,” Zarif said. “Go to Washington, don’t come to me.”
Almost a year after the administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the administration is deepening its campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure that Trump administration officials say is meant to force Iran to behave like a “normal country.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in May 2018 that the US would aim to “crush” Tehran unless it changes its behavior in the Middle East, a speech that many analysts saw as a policy of regime change in everything but name. The policy has roiled allies and risked hurting other US policy priorities, including the denuclearization of North Korea, that require the cooperation of allies and countries such as China.
‘Iran will continue to sell its oil’
On Monday, Pompeo announced the end to oil waivers, saying that “the goal remains simple: to deprive the outlaw regime of the funds it had used to destabilize the Middle East for four decades and incentivize Iran to behave like a normal country.”
Noting that oil is “the regime’s No. 1 source of cash,” Pompeo said that prior to the implementation of US sanctions, Iran was generating “as much as $50 billion annually,” from oil exports, but that the department estimates the sanctions have “denied the regime well north of $10 billion.”
Zarif said the step to pull oil waivers won’t stop Iran from selling its crude and condensate and warned that if the US tried to prevent Tehran from doing so, perhaps by taking measures in the Straits of Hormuz, there would be consequences.
“We believe that Iran will continue to sell its oil,” he said. “We will continue to find buyers for our oil. And we will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil,” Zarif said.
“But if the United States takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that, then it should be prepared for consequences,” Zarif added.
“It is in our interest, our vital national security interest, to keep the Persian Gulf open, to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. We’ve done that in the past, we will continue to do it in the future, but the United States should know when they enter the Strait of Hormuz, they have to talk to those who are protecting the Strait of Hormuz, and that is Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”
Lt. Christina Gibson, a spokeswoman for the US Naval Forces Central Command, said that “the Strait of Hormuz is an international waterway. Threats to close the strait impact the international community and undermine the free flow of commerce.”
Gibson added that the US and its allies are “committed to freedom of navigation and remain well positioned and postured to preserve the free flow of commerce, and we are prepared to respond to any acts of aggression.”
Pompeo has also refused to rule out the possibility of a military confrontation with Iran. When asked on April 15 if the Trump administration was seeking a military confrontation with Iran, within the contours of the Authorization to Use Military Force legislation, Pompeo left the door slightly ajar.
‘Trump will act lawfully’
“The United States and President Trump will act lawfully. He’ll act within his authorities,” Pompeo said in Dallas. “Article 2 gives broad powers, the AUMF gives a set of broad powers, but they are – we understand them.”
Zarif suggested the impetus is on the US to return to the JCPOA and said there would not be a better agreement than what had already been negotiated.
“The US left the table. The table is still there. It’s not as if there’s no table. The United States does not need a new table. Table is set. There is a resolution. There is an agreement. I negotiated all of that agreement and I know that neither Iran nor the United States will ever get a better agreement,” Zarif said.
Trump is “mistaken” to believe sanctions will cause Tehran to change its policies the way the Trump administration would like them to. “He thinks through further pressure on Iran, so the so-called maximum pressure policy he can bring us to our knees,” Zarif said. “He is mistaken.”
CNN’s Jamie Crawford, Barbara Starr, Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report