Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Iran sees US visa waiver changes ‘absurd’, Zarif says

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking to Al-Monitor in New York following a UN Security Council meeting on Syria on Dec. 18, said it remains to be seen if US-Iran relations would ease in the wake of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal as early as next month.

But he said Iran was disturbed by recent proposed changes to the US Visa Waiver Program that could require European travelers who had visited Iran to apply for a visa to travel to the United States, and he had been discussing the matter with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We will have to wait and see,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview at Iran’s ambassadorial residence in New York on Dec. 18, regarding whether US-Iran ties would ease up a bit after the United States lifts sanctions when the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is implemented as early as January.

“Unfortunately, there are mixed signals coming from Washington, mostly negative signals, including the Visa Waiver Program restrictions” proposed in a Congressional omnibus spending bill Dec. 18, Zarif said. “Now we await for the decision by the administration on how it wants to bring itself into compliance with its obligations under JCPOA.”

“I have had discussions with Secretary Kerry and others on this for the past several days since it’s become known that this was the intention,” Zarif said. “And I wait for them to take action.”

Predominantly Shiite Iran, which is considered a mortal enemy of the Islamic State (IS), an extremist Sunni terrorist group, and is engaged in fighting it in Iraq and Syria, has nothing to do with recent IS-linked terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Zarif said, calling the proposed changes to the US Visa Waiver Program targeting travelers to Iran “absurd.”

“Now it is clear that this new legislation is simply absurd because no Iranian nor anybody who visited Iran had anything to do with the tragedies that have taken place in Paris or in San Bernardino or anywhere else,” Zarif said. “But they’re being the targets. I think it discredits those who pass these legislations, those who adopt them and those who implement them more than anything else. And it sends a very bad signal to the Iranians that the US is bent on hostile policy towards Iran, no matter what.”

Zarif, speaking after the conclusion of a third round of meetings of some 20 nations and international bodies that comprise the International Syria Support Group, said he appreciated that the international Syria diplomatic process had brought Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into direct discussions again, which Iran has sought but Riyadh had rebuffed until October. But he expressed misgivings about the intentions of some members of the international body about whether they really supported a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict.

He confirmed that Iran has had sideline bilateral conversations with Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, but he said the interactions were brief.

“There have been some short conversations, very welcomed though,” Zarif said. “And I’ve had a couple of exchanges with my Saudi counterpart [Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir]. Iran’s ambassador has had a couple of exchanges in the yard. We hope that is a good beginning. But that’s not even near where we should be.”

“We have always been ready to engage with our neighbors, and we believe that our neighbors are our priority,” Zarif said. “And once our Saudi friends are ready to engage in serious dialogue, they will find Iran to be … ready.”

As to the considerable efforts of Kerry and the Obama administration, as well as Russia and the European Union, to persuade Saudi Arabia to include Iran in direct talks on regional matters, Zarif did not offer Washington too much credit. “The fact that people allowed certain players to exclude others from this process was the anomaly, not having a table around which all the significant players can sit and discuss,” Zarif said. “So, I mean, I have to say that what happened in the past [keeping Iran out of the Geneva meetings on Syria] was the anomaly, not what is happening now.”

On Syria, Zarif said he believed the international community was becoming more “realistic” about trying to facilitate a dialogue among the Syrian regime and opposition “without setting preconditions” — presumably referring to when in a transition process Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power.

“I think as soon as people realized that this was not possible, that if you wanted to find a political solution to the Syrian nightmare, you needed to be able to sit down at the table without setting preconditions. And I think that that’s the realization,” Zarif said. “It’s not kicking the can down the road, but rather being realistic. That you need to start negotiating, and through the negotiation process, achieve the outcome; not achieve the outcome before the negotiation process.”

“Of course there are disagreements,” Zarif said. “We have disagreements about who [the] terrorists are. Unfortunately, reincarnations of al-Qaeda, Daesh [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra are being used by some of our friends and neighbors as oppositions rather than as terrorists. … And we certainly do have differences about how the political process should lead to a national unity government.”

“I think another area of possible disagreement is that some of our friends continue to believe that there is a military solution,” Zarif said. “I think that’s an illusion. Of course there has to be a military element to this, but it has to be a political solution. And then we need to engage in a comprehensive approach to settle the problem of these extremist groups.”

See also:

Iran examines US bill tightening visa-free travel

US visa ban targets Iranians: Why not Saudis and Pakistanis?

Will changes to US Visa Waiver Program torpedo Iran deal implementation?

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