Iran's U.N. Ambassador: U.S. Escalating Hostilities Like A 'Knife Under Your Throat'

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 27, 2019 6:41 pm

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations is defending shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz and says Tehran will not be forced back into negotiations with the White House.

"You cannot negotiate with somebody who has a knife in his hand putting the knife under your throat," Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, said in an exclusive interview with NPR. "That cannot be acceptable by anybody. Any reasonable person cannot accept to have negotiations with somebody who is threatening you."

In the 20-minute sit-down interview with Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, Ravanchi also denied responsibility for an attack on two oil tankers last week and steadfastly maintained that Iran is not interested in war, only in protecting its borders from what it sees as illegal intrusions.

Ravanchi accused American leaders of unleashing "economic warfare" against Iran in attempting to isolate the country and forcing it back to the negotiating table.

Yet forging common ground, Ravanchi argued, is squarely within the power of the U.S.

'We were left with no option'

Ravanchi's interview with NPR comes the same day President Trump blamed "someone loose and stupid" in Iran for shooting down a naval surveillance drone with a 131-foot wingspan in the Strait of Hormuz, the latest flashpoint in a growing rift between the two countries.

After news of the downed unmanned aircraft, Trump called for an emergency meeting with congressional leaders. U.S. Central Command said the event was an "unprovoked attack" over international waters.

But Ravanchi described Iran's version of events.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, which he described as a "spy drone," was flying above the Persian Gulf close to the border with Iran.

"And then we noticed that that drone is getting close to our airspace," Ravanchi said.

He said unsuccessful attempts were made by radio to communicate with the drone to warn it away from Iranian airspace.

"And all of a sudden, we noticed that it was entering our airspace," he said. "At that time since it was a spy drone, [we] were left with no other option," he said. "Just to shoot it down," he said.

Iran was acting in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, a provision allowing military action in situations involving self-defense, he said.

"This was an act of provocation on [the] part of United States, and we asked the international community to demand from United States to stop these sort of actions, which is somehow endangering international peace and security."

Iran and U.S. have provided competing locations for where exactly the drone was targeted, Iran's coordinates placing it over the country's waters and the coordinates provided by Pentagon officials showing it fell in international airspace.

Since the drone was shot down, Iranian officials have recovered portions of the aircraft that "naturally fell down within territorial waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Ravanchi said.

"So that shows, by itself, that the drone was shot down within the Iranian airspace," he said.

Hours after the incident, Trump responded, tweeting: "Iran made a very big mistake!"

Answering reporters' questions as to whether he would order a retaliation for downing the drone, the president responded: "You'll soon find out."

The Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal a year ago, saying the agreement was not strong enough. Instead, the White House imposed stiff economic sanctions on Tehran and U.S. officials pressed other countries to stop buying Iranian oil.

President Trump has made it clear that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, though this week the country announced it would exceed the limit it had agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.

'We are not seeking war'

Asked whether Iran is trying to move toward a confrontation with the U.S., Ravanchi said, "Definitely not."

"We are not seeking war not only with the U.S., with nobody," he continued. "It is not in our interests to have a conflict in our region because, to be to be very frank with you, conflict in our region will be detrimental to all regional countries — the U.S., and everybody."

Ravanchi said in a war with Iran, there would be no winners or losers. Instead, it would be a "hell, which will be felt by everybody."

Nonetheless, he said, Iran needs to be prepared to defend the country's "territorial integrity" at sea, in air and on the land "against any intrusion by the U.S., or any other country," echoing a letter he wrote today to the U.N. secretary-general and the Security Council making the case that his country has a right to self-defense. In the letter, Ravanchi said that the U.S. had committed a "very dangerous and provocative act," by veering into Iranian territory, something he said was a "blatant violation of international law."

Last week, two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, an episode the U.S. has blamed on Iran. Tehran has denied involvement.

Speaking to NPR about those attacks, Ravanchi amplified Iran's position, saying it appears to be a "very suspicious action."

The U.S. has released video that it says shows an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel alongside one of the stricken tankers as its crew removes an unexploded limpet mine in an effort to hide Iran's role in the attack. Tehran has denied any such action.

"We have to find out who was responsible for this act," he said.

U.S. pursuing 'economic terrorism' against Iran

The beginning of increased tensions with the U.S. began when Trump last year pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Ravanchi helped negotiate. America's withdrawal from the accord was opposed by other signatories to the agreement, including China, Russia and America's European allies.

That was the moment when, he said, "the whole mess in our region started."

A series of actions, including pushing the international community to boycott Iran and classifying Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, are proof, he said that "the U.S. is trying to intimidate Iran" into negotiating under terms favorable to the Washington.

Ravanchi said the future of relations is in the hands of top U.S. officials, who he portrays as leading an aggressive crusade against Iran to coerce the country into its bidding.

The United States has "started a military campaign against Iran," he said. "The U.S. has started economic warfare, which we call economic terrorism against Iran. So as soon as the U.S. changes course, I think we will be in a much better situation than what we have today."

: 6/26/19

In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to Majid Takht Ravanchi as ambassador to the United States. Ravanchi is the ambassador to the United Nations.

Previously posted June 24: In a previous version of this story, Majid Takht Ravanchi's last name was incorrectly spelled Ravanichi in some references.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, what is Iran's side of shoot down that provoked the near U.S. airstrike? There's no Iranian diplomat to ask in Washington. The U.S. and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979. There is an Iranian ambassador to the United States in New York. Majid Ravanchi is his name. He's new to the job but not new to the United States. He's studied at the University of Kansas. We met yesterday afternoon in his office. With windows overlooking Manhattan, Ravanchi sitting there insisted that Iran had the right to fire on that U.S. drone.

MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI: We tried to caution the drone through radio transmission. Unfortunately, that drone didn't respond. And all of a sudden, we noticed that it was entering our airspace.

INSKEEP: Now, we've heard the competing claims about exactly where the drone was. There is no way to independently verify either side's claim at this point. But the ambassador contends that Iran has evidence.

RAVANCHI: Besides, we have - in the possession of the remains - some parts, remains of this drone, which fell.

INSKEEP: You've recovered portions of the drone.

RAVANCHI: We have recovered some portions of the drone, which naturally fell down within the territorial waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

INSKEEP: Is Iran waging a wider campaign of trying to send a message to the world?

RAVANCHI: Definitely not. We are not seeking war not only with the US; with nobody.

INSKEEP: But Iran could be conducting provocations without seeking war.

RAVANCHI: What is in it for Iran to have a provocation? If, God forbid, a conflict erupts in our region, there is not going to be a loser or a winner. Everybody will lose.

INSKEEP: But aren't you seeking some way to resist or respond to the U.S. pressure campaign?

RAVANCHI: We have to be prepared to defend ourselves. Being prepared to defend ourselves does not mean that we are seeking war.

INSKEEP: When two oil tankers were recently attacked, Ambassador, as you know, the United States blamed Iran. Some U.S. allies were initially silent or skeptical. They wanted to see the evidence. Now they have. And Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany, which has been trying to maintain a nuclear deal with Iran, has said there is strong evidence of Iran's involvement. Does Iran acknowledge any involvement by Iranian forces or proxy forces in those tanker attacks?

INSKEEP: Not at all. Not at all. We have said it very clearly that this has been a very suspicious action. Who has done it? We don't know. We have to find out who was responsible for this act. As I said...

RAVANCHI: How do you answer Angela Merkel, who says there's strong evidence of Iran's involvement?

RAVANCHI: It is not only Germany. Your other allies have not been satisfied with the explanation of the U.S. officials about this.

INSKEEP: But the British have been supportive of the U.S. version.

RAVANCHI: As I said, a number of countries have been supportive of the U.S. assertion. But there are a number of other countries who have not been satisfied. At the beginning, they produce a black and white picture. They thought that they could convince the people. Later on, they referred to color pictures. But nobody knows where this big ship was. Nobody knows where this small boat was.

INSKEEP: You're referring to U.S. military photos in color of what is identified as a Revolutionary Guard - Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel.

RAVANCHI: But as I was explaining, there is no evidence as to where the big ship was. Was it in the Persian Gulf? Was it in the Gulf of Mexico? Was it in the South China Sea?

INSKEEP: You think this is a photo from somewhere else?

RAVANCHI: I don't know. I mean, can you say that the evidence, which was shared by the U.S., can stand in the court of law in the United States?

INSKEEP: There will understandably be a dispute about all facts in these episodes. But there is a matter that is not up for dispute, and that is that Iran has said, in recent days, that it's continuing to enrich uranium and will soon pass a limit for the amount of enriched uranium to have on hand under the nuclear agreement. Why would Iran go past that limit?

RAVANCHI: The whole mess in our region started in May 2018, when President Trump decided to withdraw from the nuclear deal against all odds, against all opinion from the international community. The U.S. is trying to intimidate Iran, is trying to put economic pressure on Iran, is trying to force Iran into negotiations under the U.S. terms. What we have been doing is to act rationally.

INSKEEP: Let's just remind people, that was the deal - Iran restrains its nuclear program and was supposed to have more free and open trade with the West.

RAVANCHI: That is true.

INSKEEP: The U.S. stopped that. And you wanted compensation from the Europeans, and you say you're not getting it.

RAVANCHI: Because nuclear deal was like a two-way street.

INSKEEP: But let me just ask, how is then exceeding a limit in the nuclear deal an effective response to that?

RAVANCHI: We said that we are going to after being patient for a year. And we didn't receive the financial dividend - the economic dividend that was promised to us based on the nuclear deal. As I said, nuclear deal was a two-way street. You cannot have, on one side of the street, a very beautiful flow of traffic and, on the other side, you have a traffic jam.

INSKEEP: In our talk, Iran's ambassador to the U.N. pointed to a provision in the nuclear deal, which appears to say that one nation in the deal may stop complying if other nations are not complying either. That, however, still left a larger question.

Are you, step-by-step, on your way out of this deal?

RAVANCHI: No, because we have said that it is not in our interest to see the demise of the nuclear deal.

INSKEEP: The prime minister of Japan, as you know, was in Tehran, attempting to mediate between the United States and Iran - met with your supreme leader. Afterward, the supreme leader made a statement to the effect that Trump is not someone who can be negotiated with or dealt with. Does that mean there's no point in negotiating with the United States?

RAVANCHI: You cannot negotiate with somebody who has a knife in his hand, putting the knife under your throat and tell you, let's sit down and talk. That cannot be acceptable by anybody.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you know what the end game is here, where all of this is headed?

RAVANCHI: It is in the hands of the United States. So as soon as the U.S. changes course, I think we will be in a much better situation than what we have today.

INSKEEP: And you feel like you know what Iran's strategy is and that that can be a successful strategy.

RAVANCHI: Iran's strategy is to stick to the nuclear deal, which has the endorsement of the international community. And if the U.S. goes back to the nuclear deal, I think, as I said, we will be in a much better situation.

INSKEEP: Majid Ravanchi is Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. He spoke with us yesterday in New York. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been listening along with us - Peter, who covers Iran - and, Peter, what stood out for you there?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, I thought it was interesting he's still saying Iran is not trying to exit the deal. That wouldn't be in Iran's interests, despite its recent threats to stop some of its commitments under the agreement. He pointed to divisions among the U.S. allies. But mainly, he was repeating the message - at least that's what I heard - that - from Tehran - that it's not seeking war. He accused the U.S. of trying to intimidate and pressure Iran, and that's exactly what the supreme leader has been saying. There will be no negotiations under pressure. There's no reason right now to talk with the U.S. because their word can't be trusted. He's been saying that since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. So Iran is saying it's not too late, even now, to salvage the situation, but it has to start seeing economic benefits. And that's exactly what the Trump administration seems most determined not to let Iran see at this point.

INSKEEP: He also insisted we're acting rationally. Do outside analysts agree with that? - that Iran, given the massive pressure, would be doing about what it's doing.

KENYON: Iran seems to be responding to pressures. If you want to call that rational, I would say, yes.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to Majid Takht Ravanchi as ambassador to the United States. Ravanchi is the ambassador to the United Nations.]

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "IN MY THOUGHTS (REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.