In an interview in New York with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, discusses the nuclear deal, the possibility of new sanctions on Iran and the "practical" ways to liberate American prisoners.
Inskeep's questions to Larijani were translated from English to Farsi, and Larijani's responses were translated from Farsi to English.
STEVE INSKEEP: Dr. Larijani, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, and welcome to the United States. I'd like to begin with a bit of news. We have learned today of the statement by the supreme leader that he believes the nuclear agreement with the world powers should be considered and ratified by the Majlis. Is there any doubt in your mind that it will be passed there?
ALI LARIJANI: You know, in the Iranian parliament, are different voices which are now being heard. There are some people who have found serious problems and shortcomings with this document. Actually, they are focusing on several areas. I mean, there are some who say that there have been too many restrictions placed on the Iranian nuclear program. And some people say that these restrictions are going to stay for a very long periods of time. I mean, some are going to stay with us, with the nuclear program, for like, eight years, some others 10, even 25 years. And there are some people who say that there are some exceptional surveillance and inspections going on. Some extraordinary inspections. And the other — there are some others who believe that they have found some problems with the — how the differences can be settled. And they say that they resist imbalance in the document. There is this paragraph, called a snapback, and it means the sanctions can return immediately. And nobody can veto this. But that is not true for us. We cannot return to the situation that we were in the past. I mean, to the point that we were before the implementation of the agreement. Let me give you an example — for example, when we removed the core of the Arak reactor, we cannot put it back. Therefore, there is this imbalance. I mean, these are the problems that these people have found with the document. Of course, I'm not saying that it is all about negative things. There are some positive aspects in it. I just wanted to tell you what the critics of the agreement are saying. It is my belief that even during the negotiations, the Americans tried to bully us, and they forced several things upon us. And this is why Iran managed to reach some of its goals as the result of this agreement. Therefore, I cannot give you a definite answer about this, whether it will be ratified in the parliament or not.
You cannot give a definite answer about this. That's a bit surprising. Why would Iran turn against this deal, having come so far?
For the reason that I just gave you, for those shortcomings. But personally, I can tell you that my overall view is that it is an acceptable deal. I'm not looking at the specifics of it, I'm looking at it — I'm looking at the whole picture. I believe that we can use this deal as a step we can take to move forward. And at the same time, it is not flawless.
I want to ask you about the supreme leader, who has supported the negotiations and praised the negotiators, but has not specifically, publicly endorsed this deal, or even called it a deal — he refers to it as a "text." What should Americans read into that, if anything?
I think he's somehow respecting the whole system. He wants to give everybody a free hand, and he doesn't want to tie the hands, and he wants everybody involved in this matter to decide about it freely. Because the deal is now being examined both in the parliament and the Supreme National Security Council of Iran. So, if he comes up with a definite judgment, or an opinion about the deal, then this will indirectly impact the opinion of the others. He wants everybody who is involved in the examination of the deal to speak their mind. Of course, there is a considerable number of people who want this deal to be implemented.
Will Iran be fully committed to upholding its part in this deal?
We have always adhered to international agreements like this one. If it goes through the parliament and if it is approved by the parliament, we will definitely adhere to it and implement it fully. But if something else happens in the U.S. Congress, or if there are new types of sanctions on us, then they should not expect us to go — to implement. Or if the Americans don't stay true to their obligations on their part, they shouldn't expect us to do it.
Now, you raise an interesting point, Dr. Larijani, because you referred to new sanctions. I want to ask about sanctions in a slightly different context. In an interview with us some weeks ago, President Obama mentioned that there are still sanctions in place against Iran, with regard to non-nuclear activities, Iran's activities in the region, for example. In another interview, Secretary of State John Kerry told us that the United States intends to hold Iran accountable for acts such as supporting Hezbollah, or supporting Houthis in Yemen. Suppose the United States begins imposing sanctions on Iran — new sanctions on Iran — for issues other than nuclear issues? Perhaps the same old sanctions, just for a different reason. What will Iran do?
There are different points mentioned in the text that need to be read carefully. The text said that no country will go after new sanctions. The text encourages more interactions between the parties, so that the public opinion gets prepared for this, for the implementation. Maybe we will have our own differences with the U.S. when it comes to regional issues, but we have to solve the differences in another way. And they shouldn't use this as a kind of — an excuse, and then violate the text. You know that the most important problem that the region is grappling with, is the problem of terrorism. Who has been standing against the terrorists? The U.S. has allies in my region, but which one has been really fighting the terrorists? Hezbollah and Iran are only two that have been fighting them. I think we have to be very realistic about this. There are many U.S. allies, and behind the scenes, they are helping ISIS. Isn't it astonishing that ISIS has $30 billion worth of weapons? So where have these weapons come from? From Mars? So, my neighboring countries have supplied them to ISIS. Aren't these allies of the U.S.?
Forgive me, you mentioned Hezbollah. Secretary of State Kerry, in our interview, specifically mentioned Iran's support for Hezbollah, and said the U.S. is going to hold Iran accountable. Suppose the United States restores some of the old nuclear sanctions, but for this new reason. What will Iran do?
I can't tell you now, but when it happens, we will give our response. So, if we feel that the other side is violating the deal, then we will retaliate. Now, this document says that both parties, both sides want to solve the problem through cooperation and dialogue. So, we are sensible enough, we are wise enough to know that the other side is trying to seek excuses, and that's an important point. You know, the supreme leader of Iran has said something that you might find interesting. He has said that this deal is like a test for the U.S., and the way the U.S. implements it and the — will be interpreted as the way it has, whether passed this test or not. And then if we see that the U.S. has passed the test, then maybe we will find ways to cooperate with each other in other areas. I think there are some people who want to wreck the deal, so they are trying to find new ways to make holes or to perforate the deal, but we are not going to do this. But if it — if anybody makes holes in this, and — I mean, wrecks the deal in any way, then we will know how to respond to it.
President Rouhani of Iran has indicated that the nuclear deal was the first of many things he wishes to accomplish as president, and that political and economic reforms inside Iran may follow a nuclear deal. Of course, he would depend on your cooperation as a legislative leader to do much of that. What is one specific political or economic or social reform that you believe is possible now?
I think he meant, mostly he meant economic reforms. So, I see very much eye to eye with him in this matter. I — I think we can make it possible for the economy to thrive. There have been some priorities that we have set. We — we are going to facilitate investments, foreign or domestic investments, to be made in the energy sector, like in oil, gas and petrochemicals. We — we have already passed three legislations in the parliament that makes it easier for investors to invest in Iran. So, we are trying to cut down the bureaucratic difficulties, and also the period of time that is needed to give an answer to an investor. And we have also set up a national development fund and the money that people are now talking about, the frozen assets, if they are released, then they will come to this fund. And this is going to work like a guarantee for the private sector in such endeavors. Another priority we have set for ourselves is that we are going to have transfer technology into the country. Iran is a market — is a big market with a population of 18 million people. And through Iran, one can also get access to the neighboring countries, like in Central Asia. So overall, it is, like, 300 million people. And Iran has a skilled workforce, that's why we want the transfer of technology into the country.
Are you — does your answer suggest that reforms to the political system or a greater openness in society are not on the agenda?
We have to see what is exactly meant by such reforms. Just take a look at the countries that have surrounded Iran, and you will see that Iran is like an exception. It's a democratic country, and the peoples' voice and votes are respected. I mean, Mr. Rouhani was elected because people voted for him. You know, we — I think we should not spend our energy in areas which cannot bring about palpable or concrete changes in the — in the livelihood of the people. We should try to focus on the economy and make a difference there.
Is it time, in this time of lessened tension, to release the presidential candidates who have been under house arrest since the disputed election of 2009?
It is a judiciary that has to decide about their fate, or in the secretariat of the National Security Council, people there can decide about it. I mean, there is a procedure there for their release. The important thing is to abide by the laws of the country. We really want the law to be applied to them. I mean, I — I'm telling you the — the opinion of the legislative branch.
Can you see a practical way that Iran's government could release Jason Rezaian and other Americans who have been held in Iran for months and years?
There are practical ways, of course. For example, there are — there is a number of Iranians imprisoned here. Definitely, for such matters of this sort, one can come up with ways and solutions. I think your politicians know about the — those ways.
There was an occasion recently with Cuba, where the United States exchanged prisoners with Cuba. Is that what you're suggesting in this instance?
That's one way for — there are other ways that the judiciary systems of the two countries can come up with. I mean, it is the judiciary that has to decide about it.
I think I must be near the end of my time. How are we on time? We're OK for time? OK. I have another — another question, if you — that's great. And I want to save a moment for photography. But one other question, if I might. As you know, American lawmakers in Congress have been deeply critical of Iran, deeply critical of this agreement. Would you invite your counterparts in the United States Congress to travel to Iran and visit it?
I think such things need to be discussed at a higher level. Iran and the U.S. have this past history that is very dark. You know that many years ago the Americans helped a coup d'etat to be staged in Iran and Mr. Mosaddegh's government was removed from power, and that was a very important thing to us, because after that coup d'etat we had to put up with the dictatorship for 30 years. So they — the Americans threw their weight behind a dictator, and the people of Iran had to bear the consequences. Then after the war — sorry, after the revolution, we had a democratic system in place, but at the same time, the U.S. provoked Saddam Hussein into attacking Iran, supported him and as a result of this war, which lasted for eight years, 250,000 Iranians were killed. We have definite and clear documents showing that the Americans were behind Saddam Hussein, and there are other cases. So this shows that the people of Iran have concerns about the U.S. I'm not saying that we should live in the past, but we should not try to find dramatic solutions. I mean, we have to adopt a realistic approach and attitude vis-a-vis Iran, and if we see that there is a change in the U.S. attitude towards us, then we can do something with each other. You know, these days we are supposed to be paving the ground for the ratification and the implementation of the deal. We have to prepare the public opinion for this, but everyday it seems that your secretary of defense wakes up in the morning, opens the window, he shouts something at Iran and says that the military option is still on the table. So what does this mean? If you really want to do — to have war, then just go with it. Why are you just talking about it all the time? Why is it that you just talk about it? I mean, does — does it solve anything? Is it of any use? So in such an atmosphere and in such a situation, can we have any parliamentary relationship like the one you just suggested? We have to be more sincere. Iran is a responsible country, and we will stay true to our words. We believe that there should be tranquility and peace in the region. We need a collective cooperation. The terrorism is a major problem in the region. These warmongering policies are just reinforcing terrorism. Every country that was attacked in my region or that was occupied in my region, gave birth to a new terrorist group. And right now, let me tell you that there is this war in Yemen, and as a result of — and you know that the U.S. is behind this — I mean, it's helping the attacker, and let me tell you for sure that there will be a new terrorist group, a very strong terrorist group in that country as well. So I hope we will not have an emergence of a new terrorist group, but let's see if it is true or not next time we meet and have another interview.
Final question: President Obama, in an interview with us months ago, said that Iran should — Iran has an opportunity to break through its isolation and should seize that moment. I wonder, do you really want Iran to be fully open to the world ever? Its media, its Internet, other channels of communication?
So if we are an isolated country, why is it that the U.S. people, U.S. — I mean, officials keep saying that we need Iran's cooperation to solve the problems of the region? Why do they repeat such remarks when they know that they are not true? On one hand, they say that Iran has created a Shia Crescent in the region, it is now controlling several Arab capitals, but on the other hand, say that Iran is isolated. So I — I think they should not exaggerate things about Iran or speak to Iran in a way that is humiliating. As I said, we need to be realistic in politics, and, you know, we are — the officials of the country in Iran try to perform their duties responsibly and according to what they have been asked to do, and when we feel that we are opposed to an idea or to a policy, we just express it freely. So we don't hide our true intentions because we are not scared of anyone. If we feel that we don't like something or we are against it, then we say everybody about it. For example, let me tell you that we were opposed to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. We even passed a message to the Americans not to do this because we know the region like that back of our hands, and we know that if a country is occupied, then there will be dire consequences for everyone. But they went ahead with their plans and it was not good for the Iraqis or for the Americans, because many American soldiers were killed and also many Iraqis were killed. As I said, we have to be realistic about matters like this.
Ali Larijani, thank you very much.