Iran’s foreign minister said the US is waging war against his country through intensifying economic sanctions that make civilians “the primary targets,” but told CNN that his country “will never start a war” and that all parties should work to avoid one.
Zarif spoke to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria Wednesday while in New York to attend meetings at the United Nations, where he described the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign as “economic terrorism” for the impact it is having on ordinary Iranians.
Iran’s top diplomat also said he hasn’t had any briefings on events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of a tanker in the Persian Gulf, the most recent unexplained incident involving shipping in the economically vital waterway.
Asked by Zakaria about the possibility of a war with the US, Zarif said, “you cannot simply disregard a possibility of a disaster.” Speaking at the residence of Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Zarif noted that in 1988, a US warship in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 passengers.
The US-educated foreign minister said that “we all need to work in order to avoid war,” but added that “there is a war going on right now. It’s an economic war – an economic war against Iran targets civilian population.”
Officially, US sanctions exempt humanitarian goods, such as food, medicine and medicinal instruments. But in reality, shortages in essential goods have affected households across the country and sent the cost of medications soaring, CNN has reported.
Zarif noted that President Donald Trump is on the record saying “that he is not engaged in military war, but in an economic war.” He added that “economic war is nothing to be proud of, because in a military confrontation, civilians may become collateral damage, but in an economic war, civilians are the primary targets.”
The Trump administration has leveled sanctions against the main sectors of Iran’s economy, its premier military group the Revolutionary Guard Corps, individual Iranian officials and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since leaving the Iran nuclear accord in May 2018. The goal, administration officials say, is to force a change in Tehran’s behavior.
Since May 2019, when the US sent a carrier strike group and bomber task force into the Persian Gulf, tensions and concerns about a kinetic clash between the two countries have risen sharply. Tehran has also announced it will breach uranium enrichment levels set by the nuclear deal unless Europe finds a way to ease some of the financial pressure created by US sanctions.
Since May, six tankers have been struck in attacks that US officials suggest – but haven’t definitively said – Iran has carried out, while Tehran has adamantly denied the charges. Iran did take responsibility for shooting down a US military drone in June, saying it was in Iranian airspace. The US said the drone was over international waters.
“We defend our territory,” Zarif told CNN. “The United States drone entered Iranian territory, entered Iranian airspace. It was shot down, because even without entering Iranian airspace, it could spy over our entire territory … it not only threatened our territorial integrity, but it was threatening our national security. We will not tolerate foreigners coming 6,000 miles from their shores to our shores and threatening our national sovereignty and stability. “
The most recent tanker incident remains murky. Unnamed US officials initially claimed a tanker belonging to the UAE had been seized by Iran over the weekend and taken to an Iranian port. The UAE said the tanker isn’t owned or operated by their country and carried no UAE personnel.
Iranian officials on Wednesday said that they’d responded to a distress call from the vessel and come to its aid, according to the New York Times. At an Atlantic Council event Wednesday, the Trump administration’s Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said the US is “trying to understand what happened.”
Zarif told Zakaria that he had “heard in the news that it required assistance and it’s being assisted. But I haven’t seen any private briefings about that.”
Zakaria asked Zarif about charges that Iran is interfering with shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, where 20% of the world’s oil trade transits, to signal that it could wreak havoc with global oil supplies.
Zarif countered that the Strait of Hormuz is essential to Iran’s economy and that his country has long provided security for shipping there.
“We have 1,500 miles of coast line with the Persian Gulf,” Zarif said. “I mean, we control the Strait of Hormuz. These waters are our lifeline, so their security is of paramount importance for Iran.”
In a reference to the US sending military vessels and trying to organize an international force to patrol the waters, Zarif said, “The United States is intervening in order to make these waters insecure for Iran. You cannot make these waters insecure for one country and secure it for others.”
At the Atlantic Council, Hook said that Trump is “not afraid of diplomacy” with Iran and noted that the President has said he would sit down with President Hassan Rouhani. “I would mention that Iran keeps rejecting diplomacy. They’ve rejected it too many times,” Hook said.
The administration has also sent mixed signals on diplomacy, to the point of denying that Iran’s top diplomat – a major force behind getting Tehran to enter the 2015 international nuclear pact – has any sway or decision-making power.
The Trump administration has also threatened to sanction Zarif, limited his movements in New York and criticized him. After an interviewer described Zarif as “an empty windbag” and a “false flag of moderation” to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Wednesday, the top US diplomat said his “core point, I think, is correct.”
“Zarif comes around and talks about how he’s the good guy,” Pompeo told the Hugh Hewitt Show. “He has been the foreign minister while the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken every action we’ve seen and he is equally responsible for those activities.”
In response to a POLITICO story Wednesday reporting that Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul asked Trump over the weekend for permission to open talks with Zarif in New York this week, a US official cast doubt on whether Zarif has the power to open up diplomacy on behalf of the Iranian regime.
The official did not confirm or deny if the President authorized a meeting with Paul, but in their statement suggested that the entire administration is not on board with the strategy.
“We’re aware of reports of a supposed meeting between a US senator and Zarif,” the official said. “It’s unclear how productive a conversation with Zarif would be given his limited role in making decisions on behalf of the Iranian regime.”
CNN’s Abby Phillip, Tamara Qiblawi, Frederik Pleitgen and Claudia Otto contributed to this report