Javad Zarif: Iran supports a democratic and constitutional political setup in Afghanistan
Afghan-Iran relations have been marked by ups and downs. Politics has overshadowed a common of history, culture and language between the two nations. Afghanistan’s ties with the US, the situation of Afghan refugees in Iran, and Tehran’s ties with the Taliban militants have eclipsed ties between the two countries. Does Iran really support the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or it is a friend of the Taliban? What is Iran’s Afghan policy? Who shapes Iran’s Afghan policy? Iran’s Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs? How do the Iranians perceive Afghanistan’s friendship with the United States? I’ll discuss these questions with Jawad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister.
In an exclusive interview, TOLOnews’ executive director, Lotfullah Najafizada, talked to Iran’s foreign minister, Jawad Zarif. He asked him the following questions. This interview is published on Kabul Now’s website in cooperation with TOLOnews.
Najafizada: Mr. Zarif, Is Afghanistan occupied by the United States?
Zarif: We see Afghanistan as an independent country which has made many achievements in areas of democracy, human rights, women rights, and rights of minority groups, 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 happened in the past. But we have, always, opposed the presence of foreign troops in the region.
Najafizada: But some Iranian officials often have referred to American presence as occupation.
Zarif: We see presence of foreign troops, whether they are in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other country, as disruptive force for peace and security in the region. However, we do not decide instead of the governments of these countries. Their governments are independent which make their own decisions. The decision is made by the people.
Najafizada: In the 2001 Bonn Conference, you contributed to the American presence, did you help the United States to come to Afghanistan?
Zarif: No, we did not contribute to the US presence in Afghanistan. We contributed to establishing an independent and democratic government in Afghanistan. Firstly, 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 which 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 make their presence in the conference on shaping a democratic future for Afghanistan.
Najafizada: Following the 2001 Bonn Conference, the UN Security Council endorsed presence of the foreign troops, including US forces, in Afghanistan they are still in the country. Has Iran’s [foreign] policy on Afghanistan undergone any serious change after the death of Qasim Soleimani?
Zarif: Our policy on 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 of the martyred Soleimani. However, I want to reiterate that Soleimani, in the Bonn Conference, played as a crucial role as I did, if not less, in bringing democracy to Afghanistan.
Najafizada: Following Soleimani’s death, you called on the Americans to pull their forces out of the region.
Zarif: We have always called for [US withdrawal from the region]. We said that 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.
Najafizada: Do you want to [implement the same strategy] in Afghanistan?
Zarif: We want the lawful and accountable withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan [which] must be based on demands of the Afghan people and it should be 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.
Najafizada: Do you not think US presence in Afghanistan has also safeguarded Iran’s national security?
Zarif: We don’t think so. We do not have this perception. The foreign [military] presence sparks some internal [national] feelings in every country which 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 feelings of some groups in Afghanistan which was then exploited by Daesh, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban movement.
Najafizada: 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. However, you played an active role over the past 20 years in Afghanistan.
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: Security cooperation against the Taliban? But wasn’t it the [Afghan] foreign ministry you would cooperate with?
Zarif: We had close ties with Doctor 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 observation of people’s rights. These active cooperation includes but not limits to the Bonn Conference, Tokyo Conference, and the inauguration of Khaf-Herat railway line, our most recent achievement in our ties.
Najafizada: It was really a great achievement. What is shared promise between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan?
Zarif: We have our own stance. Currently, we do not exactly know what the US position about Afghanistan is. If it is, as 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. But if you want to find Iran’s shared position, our stance is clear. Our stance is that the Afghan people, including the Taliban, must decide their future.
Najafizada: The US also says it!
Zarif: But the US left [shifted side]. We have never sat with a foreign group to decide about the future of Afghanistan.
Najafizada: There are many questions about details of your ties with Taliban as well.
Surely, we surly work with the Taliban. But we do not sit with them to decide about the future of Afghanistan and sign an agreement.
Najafizada: Your points are not clear. I have many questions. How do you define the Taliban? Is Taliban a terrorist group? Is the Taliban an insurgent group? How Iran defines the Taliban?
Zarif: As you pointed it, the Taliban killed eight of my colleagues before doing so with others. Therefore, our definition of the Taliban is that the Taliban have committed many terrorist acts. Before naming the Taliban as terrorist, the Taliban is a group in Afghanistan who have committed terrorist acts and it is necessary now to consider the Taliban as part of a future solution, not the future solution for Afghanistan.
Najafizada: But in your calculation, the Taliban, as a group, are not a terrorist group?
Zarif: Look, the Taliban have committed many terrorist acts. Regarding recognition of the Taliban as terrorist group, we have not removed the Taliban [from our lists of] terrorist groups, in our laws.
Najafizad: Then they are [a terrorist group]?
Zarif: They are as they are in the United Nations’ laws. We follow the United Nations.
Najafizada: Then the Taliban are a terrorist group?
Zarif: We do follow exactly what is decided by the United Nations Security Council. But we do believe that the Taliban is a reality in the future. I want to point out to two realities. We have two realities in Afghanistan; the Taliban is a reality. But what have occurred in the past 19 years – the achievements made by the Afghan people, democracy, rights of minority groups, women rights – are all realities too.
Najafizada: Perhaps [realities] beggar than the Taliban!
Zarif: Perhaps beggar 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.
Najafizada: We will have questions about future of the Taliban and Afghanistan. You pointed out 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?
Zarif: Neither we forgave, nor did we forget it. 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 Iran government, however, concluded that such war would certainly harm the Afghan people, not only the Taliban. Therefore, we withdrew from waging war and taking revenge. But neither we forgive [the Taliban], nor we forget it. It’s a pain that we tolerated for the sake of the Afghan people. If we wanted to take the revenge, we should have acted militarily. But we concluded that the military act was harmful for the Afghan people and also for the Iran people.
Najafizada: Does US-Taliban partnership harm Iran?
Zarif: What is harmful for Iran and Afghanistan is that the US signs an agreement with the Taliban and wants it to impose on the Afghan people.
Najafizada: We have asked it from our Afghan officials. From the Afghan President, but we want to know Iran’s stance!
Zarif: This is also our stance. Our stance is that the US must facilitate intra-Afghan talks and avoid contacting a group instead of Afghans and make a deal. And get things to a phase that the group does not accept any other basis rather than their own agreement with the US.
Najafizada: You have also developed ties with the Taliban and have already confirmed it. But Afghan officials, including former Afghanistan chief of army staff in 2017 claimed that you (Iran) are supplying warfare to the Taliban, train them, and treat wounded militants, like the ISI.
Zarif: We do not do none of the three things. We do not supply them warfare, we do not treat 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 areas between Iran and Afghanistan and we are obliged to defend our people.
Najafizada: The Taliban are your partners? On the other side of the border, the Taliban are your neighbor?
Zarif: The Taliban have presence. But I don’t know how to name it.
Najafizada: Then you have security cooperation?
Zarif: We have taken the Afghan government on board as we made exchanges with the Taliban. In many cases which the government needed help, we provided the help. We have explained everything in details in recent visit of Mr. Araghchi to Kabul.
Najafizada: What did you exchange with the Taliban?
Zarif: We shared demands raised by the Afghan government with the Taliban.
Najafizada: Are you a mediator between the Taliban and Afghanistan?
Zarif: No, we are not mediator. We are a neighbor and Afghanistan is important for us. Afghanistan’s future is important and we want its future as I explained with you.
Najafizada: 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?
Zarif: We issued a statement in support of the peace process in Afghanistan before the meeting was held.
Najafizada: It sounded much like a protest! You protested against the US management.
Zarif: No. We did protest the US management. I said, we do not accept the US policy in this regard.
Najafizada: But there was not a single country to protest against it!
Zarif: They have their own ideas. As I said, we respect the Afghan government’s view.
Najafizada: The Afghan government was aligned with the world, attended the meeting, and your friend, Abdullah was also present at the meeting!
Zarif: 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 do not participate in an electoral campaign program of the United States. The meeting was turned out to 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 big harm he inflicted on Afghanistan in the future.
Najafizada: 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?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: But it was before the start of peace talks!
Zarif: You are right. All [the countries] had ties with the Taliban before start of the peace talks. Do you think that the US developed relations with the Taliban after the peace talks?
Najafizada: No. But we know less about what Mullah Akhtar Mansour was doing [in Iran]? What contribution [his trip to Iran] did to the peace process?
Zarif: To my knowledge, his trip [to Iran] was just a transit, under an alias name.
Najafizada: A two-month transit.
Zarif: I do not know it.
Najafizada: Didn’t you meet him?
Zarif: 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 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.
Najafizada: Your ties looks too old!
Zarif: That meeting was organized by Afghanistan committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC’s Afghanistan committee consisted 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 Islamic Conference. I chaired the meeting.
Najafizada: Do the Taliban leaders have houses in Iran in Mashhad and Zahedan?
Zarif: 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 headquarter or base in Iran.
Najafizada: Something like Mashhad Council and Zahedan Committee…
Zarif: I have also heard about it but I do not really have information about it.
Najafizada: It’s your country!
Zarif: Yes it is.
Najafizada: You don’t have the information or you reject its existence?
Zarif: We have three million refugees from Afghanistan in Iran.
Najafizada: This is the same thing the Pakistanis say!
Zarif: No. I explained the type of our relations with the Taliban. Neither we 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 Emirate, and Saudi Arabia. We did not recognize it. Therefore, our relations with the Taliban comes from a necessity for their presence along our borders.
Najafizada: In peace talks in Doha, the Taliban took a provoking stance on Jafari jurisprudence. Did you hear about it?
Zarif: We learned that the Taliban have raised Jafari jurisprudence as a [right] for a religious minority group.
Najafizada: Is it concerning for you?
Zarif: Yes, surely it is concerning.
Najafizada: Explain it please, how?
Zarif: Afghanistan’s constitution, recognizes the whole Islamic jurisprudences as official region.
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.
Najafizada: Does Iran want to take action on how to deal with this stance?
Zarif: This is the responsibility of the Afghan people. I think we have our own idea but it is the people of Afghanistan who have to make decisions about their future.
Najafizada: Mr. Zarif, do you think establishment of a political system in Afghanistan—as some would describe it as Sunni version of the ruling system in Iran— causes trouble for Iran?
Zarif: We have an Islamic Republic here. We would appreciate if someone establishes its Sunni version. But the Islamic Emirate is not certainly its Sunni version.
Najafizada: What is it?
Zarif: We believe that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as stipulated in the Constitution on the basis of the people’s votes, is the solution that existed over past 20 years. Our idea and suggestion is that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the current Constitution should be recognized as the basis for future [government] of Afghanistan. But, I have to repeat it that we cannot make decision in this regard, this is what that the Afghan people should decide on.
Najafizada: Can we draw parallel analogies between Emirate and Velayat-e-Faqih?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: [Under Emirate] in Afghanistan, it means there is a president and an emir [working parallel].
Zairf: Look, it depends on the votes of the people of Afghanistan. When people’s votes are decisive, in Islamic republic, even supreme leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts, [an assembly] which is elected by the people. In the [setup of] Islamic Republic of Iran, we have no permanent and unelected position.
Najafizada: Except the Supreme Leader?
Zarif: No, in accordance with Iran’s constitution, the Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts and the assembly can remove him.
Najafizada: But again, he is not elected in a direct election!
Zarif: Direct election, is Electoral College [a] direct election in America? What happened in the US we saw yesterday.
Najafizada: Do you think the Taliban are really willing to reach a peace settlement?
Zarif: I think, the Taliban look ready to have a peace settlement by their own principle. Peace settlement means reconciliation with every party, otherwise, it is victory in war; victory in war is different from what we call peace settlement. The Taliban, I think, must pursue peace settlement, which means recognizing current realities, recognition of all parties’ perspectives, rather than, saying that we will agree to peace settlement when all parties surrender to us.
Najafizada: Do you think the Taliban have such an intension or you are not sure [about what Taliban want to gain]?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: Didn’t you remind your guest, mullah Barader?
Zarif: 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 [with others]. We do not feel hesitation in mentioning our stance.
Najafizada: Do you see any international setup coming into being with Iran taking a key part in it?
Zarif: We are convinced that a regional initiative can be helpful for Afghanistan. For instance, we took part in 6+2 group, which a coalition of Afghanistan neighboring nations albeit there were other nations too. We cannot accept others making decision, we get sidelined, and approve their decisions. We believe Afghanistan, first of all, should be participating in any regional initiative, and second of all, Afghan peace should be led by Afghanistan. No outsider, from foreign country, should be allowed to make decision for Afghanistan and instead of Afghanistan. Thirdly, the neighboring countries are the closest nations that benefit or get disadvantage 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 be consists of those nations that want to donate. We will participate in such a setup and appreciate such initiative.
Najafizada: Do you welcome Qatar’s hosting of the Afghan peace process?
Zarif: We have a good relation with Qatar. We are ready to cooperate with Qatar albeit within an appropriate framework. Today, we have a good conversation with Qatar on the future of Afghanistan. I contacted the Qatari foreign minister when I decided to take this regional initiative.
Najafizada: Did the Afghan [authorities] know?
Zarif: Sure, actually after having a telephone conversation with Mr. Atmar, I took the initiative. Mr. Atmar is my brother and an old friend; we have good relation and friendly cooperation since he was serving as National Security Advisor. I dare say it was a joint initiative taken by both of us—I and Mr. Atmar.
Najafizada: In one hand, you say the Americans must pull out of Afghanistan, on the other side, you stress it must be a responsible withdrawal; in one hand, you claim Iran supports peace in Afghanistan but you do not take part in the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan talks. Under a complex condition, you say a republic and constitutional Afghanistan means a lot to Iran yet you have developed relation with the Taliban. Minister Zarif, who makes Iran’s Afghan policy? Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds, the intelligence or foreign ministry?
Zarif: What shapes foreign policy of every nation is a national consensus. In Afghanistan, you have the National Directorate of Security, the President, the foreign minister and other authorities, but at the end, you have a single foreign policy coming out. In Iran, we have similar mechanism. I will explain what our foreign policy is, no doubt there are many agencies that shape Iran’s foreign policy. Afghanistan is our neighboring nation. [Remember], we were about to fight when Iran’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif came under Taliban attack in late 1990s, it is a serious issue for us, you did not point out 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 an inclusive decision making [process], should decide the future of their country. The Taliban are a part of Afghanistan’s future, they are the future of the country.
Najafizada: You were not present in Doha!
Zarif: I was not present in the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan talks for we were not in favor of method of the America. We still do not favor it, and we will not participate if it takes place again.
Najafizada: Even if the Afghans ask you to participate?
Zarif: Look, we are supporting Afghanistan. Iran, perhaps, is the only country which clearly says that Afghanistan’s future political setup should be 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 future setup. It means, we are standing by the people of Afghanistan and the Afghan government. Others are not like us.
Najafizada: Do you deny that there is one government but two players in Iran or single player and double policy?
Zarif: We have a single unified policy as I explained. I clarified why we have developed relation 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 others friends from intelligence.
Najafizada: But who are in driving seat of [Iran’s policy] in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon?
Zarif: The leadership of Iran, the President, the high council of national security and other national agencies make Iran’s foreign policy.
Najafizada: What was Mr. Soleimani doing in Iraq?
Zarif: Mr. Soleimani was in Iraq, helping the Iraqi government in the fight against extremism and ISIS, 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?
Najafizada: But Ismail Qaani, former Quds deputy, paid a visit to Afghanistan, he went to Bamyan and met with Bamyan governor who received him as [Iran’s] deputy ambassador [in Afghanistan].
Zarif: I do not know anything about [Bamyan] governor’s supposition, however, Mr. Qaani is well-known personality. He had contacts with Afghan friends, and still has and will have. Afghan authorities know him and have contacts with him, and they meet him often as they visit Tehran, we appreciate these meetings. I think, for us it is good to have contact with whole Afghanistan, and this contact is very important contact. I think, the role Sardar Soleimani played with late Rabbani in Bonn conference for the future of Afghanistan, was perhaps better than our role.
Najafizada: That is why I ask who really makes Iran’s foreign policy?
Zarif: I explained. We are working in a harmony. You know that it was I who made [subjects of] democracy and counterterrorism part of agenda in Bonn conference. You can read it in book written by the US envoy in Bonn conference. He writes 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.
Najafizada: Do you think, with the Taliban returning to Afghanistan, the country will fall in the hands of an anti-Iran terrorist group?
Zarif: Afghanistan’s future, we believe, must be in the grab of people of Afghanistan, with all parties on the lead. We believe the Taliban alone are not capable of governing Afghanistan and [we are convinced Afghanistan] will not return to 1990s.
Najafizada: What if they take power in government?
Zarif: It is up to the people of Afghanistan. I do not elect the Afghan president, it is the people of Afghanistan who do it. No one in Iran does such a work.
Najafizada: And you will not face security problem?
Zarif: We respect any decision made by Afghans but it must be made on basis of the country’s constitution, the Islamic republic system, with considering the achievements made over the last 20 years.
Najafizada: Why do you dispatch Afghans to Syrian war?
Zarif: We do not send any one to Syria.
Najafizada: You sent 25,000 Afghans!
Zarif: Look, I made it clear, nobody goes to war on behalf of a foreign country to a third county. Our brothers would go to [Syria] voluntarily. Some Iraqis went and some from other countries took part in [war in Syria].
Najafizada: But you facilitated them.
Zarif: In Syria, we helped [the anti-Daesh front]. Daesh is a common enemy to all of us.
Najafizada: You armed them though you say the Afghans should make decision by their own.
Zarif: They went to fight for their beliefs. Some of them erected Afghanistan’s flag in their outposts and displayed the photograph of Afghan president. They are the best forces with a military background in the fight against Daesh, the Afghan government, if willing, can regroup them.
Najafizada: What for?
Zarif: For the fight against Daesh and for the fight against terrorism and for protection of Afghanistan security. Najafizada: Where are these forces [now]?
Zarif: Most of them of have rejoined a normal life, as now the war is over in Syria, they have rejoined normal life, working.
Najafizada: Where, in Iran?
Zarif: Maybe, they are in Iran or perhaps they are not in Iran.
Najafizada: How may are their exact numbers?
Zarif: I have learned the same number as you say: 5,000. I have learned that lesser than 2,000 of them are in Syria.
Najafizada: You are an international lawyer, where in the world you have seen [government] recruiting refugees and sending them to a third country [to fight a proxy war]?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: If I want to take arm, you send me to Syria?
Zarif: We may arm you when you end up in Syria.
Najafizada: You do not give arm here?
Zarif: As they went to Syria to join the anti-Daesh force, we, without any hesitation, supported all resistance forces against terrorism and extremism.
Najafizada: Do you know the number of casuality rate inflicted on the Afghans in Syria?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: [Under the Iranian rule], the Afghans are not allowed to subscribe a mobile sim card, in some places they are not allowed to attend schools; they are killed [by Iranian forces] on street; they are not allowed to visit parks or other public spaces, it is interesting how could they have free movement and go to Syria for fight?
Zarif: 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 course. 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 due 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 were a minor problem: some of our Afghan brothers, who had bank account at Bank Saderat Iran, were not issued bank cards.
Najafizada: Can they have their bank cards now?
Zarif: 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 under reservation of money laundering. We are taking the issue to the high council against money laundering, and we want to get a permission which allows issuance of bank card for those Afghans who have bank accounts in Iranian banks. Take it into consideration, the Iranians also cannot have bank accounts in many countries though they are there on visa and have passports.
Najafizada: You are interested in making an analogy with the US, if you spend five years in the America, they will grant you citizenship.
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: Maybe, it is on account of their association with Iran!
Zarif: 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 insurances 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.
Najafizada: But Iran never became a home for the Afghans.
Zarif: Nowhere, other than motherland, becomes your home. There are Iranians who have lived for years in the US. I too have lived in there. But I never felt like being at home. My children were born in the America but never felt 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.
Najafizada: Has Fatemiyoun “project” been put on halt?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: Do you back the idea of Fatemiyoun forces being regrouped against Daesh inside Afghanistan?
Zarif: 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.
Najafizada: Inside Afghanistan, there are not enough [Fatemiyoun fighters] but elsewhere there are plenty of Afghans who fight as proxy forces.
Zarif: I disagree. I explained. In Syria, we were supporting them under leadership of Hafiz Bashar Assad. He was making decision and we were implementing. In Afghanistan, we are prepared to support them under leadership of the Afghan government.
Najafizada: With Biden administration in the White House, do you expect talks on JCPOA would resume?
Zarif: 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 from Covid-19 vaccine, but they failed to achieve their goals. If Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump knew that this strategy did not work, they must have changed it. The United States, as member of United Nations, member of UN Security Council, is obliged to act on 2031 Resolution, which means they have to lift up sanctions. We will act on JCPOA when the US lifts up sanctions—it should go beyond rhetoric— when Iran gets permit to sell oil, and when we were allowed to withdraw our capitals, then we would undertake the responsibilities the JCPOA oblige to. The situation would get normalized.
Najafizada: Will the talks resume?
Zarif: There is no need to resume talks. You fulfill your commitments, we do ours. We have clearly explained our stance.
Najafizada: Are you happy as Biden is in the White House?
Zarif: I am neither optimist nor pessimist. It is up to them, they have to make this decision. As I explained, if they stick to their rhetoric—issue statement against statement—then again do not lift up sanctions and expect us to take action, it does not work. If they issue statement, we will issue statement and if they take action, we will take action.
Najafizada: Are you worried about Israel-Saudi friendship and Bahrain crisis?
Zarif: 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 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 a friendly relation with our neighbors and we want to have a friendly relation with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and that is why we proposed Hormuz peace initiative.
Najafizada: Why did your government execute Rohullah Zam?
Zarif: Our judiciary system is independent and the government does not have any role in verdicts passed by our judiciary. 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 bomb on his website.
Najafizada: Do you personally favor such executions?
Zarif: 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 drug. 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.
Najafizada: Iran is going to presidential poll in lesser than six months, are you going to run for presidency office?