These are tense and potentially dangerous days for U.S.-Iranian relations. The White House fears that Iran's nuclear-energy program is actually a secret nuclear-weapons program. The Bush Administration accuses the Islamic Republic of harboring al Qaeda terrorists -- an accusation Iran denies. And Washington strongly believes that Iran, the established Shiite power in the Middle East, is meddling in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, where the majority of the population is also Shiite. That's why some in the Bush Administration are calling for "regime change" in Iran -- much as they did before in Iraq.
To hear the Iranian viewpoint on these issues, BusinessWeek London Bureau Chief Stanley Reed and Senior Writer Rose Brady spoke with M. Javad Zarif, Iran's permanent representative to the U.N. Since Tehran doesn't have diplomatic relations with Washington, Zarif, who speaks flawless English and earned his doctorate in international law from the University of Denver, is his country's top representative in the U.S. The meeting took place at the Iranian Mission to the U.N. in New York. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Q: Are you concerned about rising tensions with Washington?
A: There's a problem with the approach of this Administration, not only toward Iran but toward global issues in general. [Officials in the Administration] are under an illusion that they can talk to others -- to countries and to people in general -- through a language of pressure and intimidation. The illusion is that this policy can produce [favorable] results. Unless this illusion is addressed seriously in Washington, we won't see the type of cooperation that can emerge on various issues. We have a whole range of issues that can theoretically be of mutual concern.
Q: Where do you see common ground with the U.S.?
A: Fighting terrorism, particularly terrorism by al Qaeda, is a priority for us. Stability in Iraq is certainly a priority for us. We don't want to see the continuation of the mayhem that has been reigning in Iraq for the past several weeks.... People would like to move Iraq in a direction that would lead to stability and the emergence of a legitimate government that's democratic and fully representative of various Iraqi ethnic and religious groups -- and at the same time has good relations with its neighbors.
I think this is a vision that can be defined as a common objective. The objective of fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is certainly one that's shared by the entire international community, and we share that objective.
The problem is not in the substance of the issues but more in the [Bush Administration's] approach. If the approach is one of mutual respect and recognition of the concerns of various sides, these issues can provide a framework for joint effort. [But] if the illusion persists in Washington that unilateral pressure, intimidation, and propaganda are the way to address concerns, people and governments will respond negatively to the pressure -- notwithstanding the substance of the issues. I think that's the type of stalemate that's threatening the international community and the type of stalemate that has led to the exacerbation of tension in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Q: Where do you think all this will lead?
A: It seems to me that what's happening -- and this is an irony -- is that the extremists on all sides tend to reinforce one another. It may on the surface look like they're fighting each other. But if you study their behavior, you see that extremist policies that are being pursued by a small group in Washington are extremely favorable and conducive to a climate which provides a much better breeding ground for extremists throughout the world.
Q: Does Iran give safe haven to al Qaeda terrorists?
A: Iran's opposition to al Qaeda is much more fundamental than the American government's. In the past, you can find traces of U.S. support for organizations such as al Qaeda and, for that matter, Saddam Hussein. Iran has always been opposed to these groups and has been a target of these groups. We started our latest campaign against al Qaeda after the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban. We have captured, imprisoned, expelled, or extradited close to 500 suspicious elements -- some connected directly with al Qaeda, some sympathizers.
It's obvious that the U.S. hasn't been successful in its attempt to put an end to this terrorist organization and is trying to find excuses. I can say categorically that there are no al Qaeda people in Iran unless they're either in prison or we don't know about them. And when I say "we," I'm talking about the entire Iranian government.
Q: What do you think of the Bush Admnistration's goal of promoting democracy throughout the Middle East?
A: What can be said very easily is that this is and should be a homegrown process -- not only in Iran but everywhere in our region. You cannot impose democracy. You cannot impose your image of good governance on any country. They need to develop it themselves so that people can feel ownership of the process. That's the only way.
This needs to be the case in Iraq as well. We believe that the U.S. certainly should not and cannot impose its image on the Iraqi people. There should be a process where the Iraqis themselves determine their own future and establish their own institutions. I think this is a general principle.
Q: Do you have any hope that Iran can renew a dialogue with Washington?
A: We've had channels of communication open to the U.S., and we continue to use those channels. But dialogue would require a readiness to understand.... [Still,] I believe that in the final analysis some type of rationality will prevail in Washington. [The current policy] is bound to lead to great tension at the international level, some sort of glorification of violence, and this is extremely dangerous. If military might is glorified at the expense of the rule of law, international law, and public opinion, then you're providing a very fertile ground for terrorist demagogues to attract people to their type of inhuman tactics. We need to address these problems.