An Interview With Iran’s Foreign Minister: ‘Prepared for All Options’

B’esm’allah-o-rahman-o-rahim,” began the Iranian foreign minister. “Today, the international community needs to have a new understanding of Iran. Perhaps more than any other, American society needs to have a new understanding of Iran.” Mr. Manouchehr Mottaki was speaking to me in a reception room at the Iranian Mission to the U.N. in the last week of June. It was almost a month after the European offer to Iran on its nuclear program (including a U.S. offer to talk), and during the week that the Group of 8 foreign ministers were meeting in Moscow. Rather than give those ministers something to discuss in the form of an Iranian response, as they had requested, Mr. Mottaki flew into New York, ostensibly to attend a U.N. conference on small-arms proliferation.

Although the foreign minister speaks to the media more often through press conferences, he agreed to sit down and converse with me (in Farsi) about his government’s position. Mr. Mottaki’s comments were studied and nuanced, perhaps in a way that only a fellow Iranian might pick up on, but he spoke in a frank and friendly manner. He had a message to impart to Americans—a message, incidentally, that he couldn’t communicate directly to any U.S. official, despite his rare presence in midtown Manhattan.

“The election [of President Ahmadinejad] last year,” he said, “was a very clear signal by the Iranian people that they do not completely trust the major players on the international scene, and this message needs to be understood.”

As one of the three men involved most publicly with Iran’s nuclear dossier (along with Ali Larijani and Mr. Ahmadinejad himself), one would have thought that Mr. Mottaki’s presence in New York would be the cause of some interest. But Iran’s Mission to the U.N., the 34th floor of an office tower on Third Avenue and 41st Street, was deserted. Inside, Mr. Mottaki seemed energized, despite his tireless travels, drumming up support for Iran and deflecting U.S. parries in the ongoing nuclear dispute.

“A colleague said to me,” the minister said, taking a sip of tea and shifting in his seat, “that, with the election [of Ahmadinejad], ‘You’ve returned to the period of 27 years ago.’ I agreed with him, but said there are two differences: Firstly, we are not the same people we were 27 years ago, and secondly, we have had 27 years of experience on the international stage.” Do not underestimate the Iranian leadership, he was saying, for they are not the naïve revolutionaries of 1979. His affirmation of the Iranian government’s revolutionary ideals, however, was a signal that the break with the reformist policies of the previous government was complete.

“The U.S. is a country that has used nuclear weapons,” he said. “Iran has never used W.M.D.’s.” The U.S., he then pointed out, gets 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. “If nuclear energy is good, then why can’t Iran have it?” he asked. “And if it’s bad,” he continued, “then why does the U.S. use it?”

I suggested that the question of Iran’s rights to nuclear energy had been put to rest, even by a reluctant U.S. administration. The issue today, it seemed, was that the Americans and Europeans still don’t trust the Iranian government. The minister nodded his head. “Iran,” he said, “has never been an aggressor. Europe, just in the last century, started two world wars—so if it’s a question of trust, should it be that they trust us, or is it that we should be trusting them? In the military doctrine of Iran, there is no use for nuclear weapons. There is no reason for it. During Saddam’s war on us, he used chemical weapons repeatedly. Our military commanders went to Imam Khomeini, seeking his permission to use those kinds of weapons against Saddam’s forces, if only to forestall their further use by Iraq. Imam Khomeini did not allow it, and we have never used W.M.D.’s.”

Mr. Mottaki continued, somewhat animatedly: “I don’t need to emphasize Iran’s 10,000-year culture—a culture of peace and stability. This culture is not a mass-murdering culture, this culture is not a terrorist culture—but many Americans don’t know this. Of course, we can’t compete with the Western media—for one of the West’s great successes is in disseminating, bombarding news to the world from their perspective. But people will discover the truth. Especially today, people can find real news; they can find the truth if they want to know it.”

Then, abruptly, and as if speaking to an audience of thousands, the minister declared: “We announce that we are neither after nuclear weapons, nor do we need them—we’ve survived for 27 years without them. Today,” he continued, “controls exist to ensure that nuclear power is used exclusively for peaceful purposes. We’ve taken a greater step and said that we would open our nuclear-fuel facilities to international ownership—any company from any country in the world can be a part of a consortium to produce fuel in Iran—and this would give outsiders a direct role in our fuel production. What more can we do,” he added in a soft voice, “to convince the world that we’re only after the peaceful use of nuclear energy?”

Mr. Mottaki took another sip of tea and shifted yet again on the straight-backed sofa. “There are two options for the West,” he continued, intentionally mimicking the language of U.S. officials. “One is negotiation and a comprehensive solution that has two elements: accepting the rights of Iran and strengthening the nonproliferation regime. The other option for the West is confrontation. We are fully prepared for all options, in the same way that the U.S. says that all options are on the table.” His tone exuded supreme confidence. “However, we don’t think the U.S. taxpayer is in a position to support another conflict in our region.” He paused slightly. “Nevertheless,” he added with a certain sang-froid, “we are prepared for all options.”

I asked the minister what he thought about the precondition in the nuclear offer (that Iran must suspend enrichment before any talks). “We think that if anyone insists on preconditions,” he replied, “then there’s a fault. We’re of the opinion that if we were to accept preconditions, then what’s there to negotiate about? That’s one issue—that for negotiations, we don’t accept any preconditions.” Mr. Mottaki glanced at his watch and added, in a charming voice, “But of course, in the end, we’re not insistent [on negotiations]. The advice I can give is: Both sides have taken a positive step to create a positive atmosphere—and this atmosphere should be maintained. There shouldn’t be the language of threats, and if anyone makes any decision on Iran without Iran’s involvement, this will definitely harm this positive atmosphere.”

His comment was meant as another warning to the upcoming G-8 summit, where Iran is at the top of the agenda. “I enjoyed this,” Mr. Mottaki said, standing up. The minister needed to say his prayers, and the next day he would be flying to Gambia, in his unending quest to make Iran’s case to the international community.