Iran's Zarif says Saudi Arabia, not Iran, is to blame for Middle East instability

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By Robert Windrem and Dan De Luce  with NBC News Politics
Image: Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia on May 8, 2019.   -  Copyright  Evgenia Novozhenina Reuters file

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifsaid on Thursday that Saudi Arabia — and notIran — is to blame for sowing instability in the Middle East, and accused the Trump administration of turning a blind eye to Riyadh's "malign" actions.

Speaking to reporters at Iran's U.N. Mission in New York, Zarif also proposed what he called a "substantial" diplomatic offer in which Iran would agree to permanent and enhanced inspections of its nuclear program in return for a permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions.

The proposal will likely be rejected by the Trump administration, which has demanded the regime agree to a list of concessions, including giving up uranium enrichment and halting its support for proxies in the region/ It has imposed harsh oil and banking sanctions on Iran, and on Thursday added sanctions against alleged "front" companies accused of procuring material for Iran's nuke program.

Hours after Zarif's briefing with reporters, President Donald Trump said the USS Boxer a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship — had destroyed an Iranian drone that had flown within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored calls to stand down.

The drone was "threatening safety of the ship and the ship's crew" and "was immediately destroyed," Trump said.

Zarif said the U.S. had singled out the wrong country by painting Iran as the culprit fueling chaos and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia, he said, was the main "source of malign activity."

Zarif asked why the U.S. penalizes Tehran instead of Riyadh, citing a litany of alleged Saudi activities, including civilian casualties from Saudi-led air raids in Yemen, promoting a renegade general in Libya, the alleged kidnapping of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in 2017, and last year's killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"You support Saudi Arabia to bomb the hell out of the Yemenis, Why do you complain against us?" Zarif said. "You supported them while they had the prime minister of Lebanon in custody. Why do you complain against us? What's the malign behavior?"

"Okay, we are involved in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq," he acknowledged, but argued that Iran is "always on the right side," while alleging the Saudi kingdom is trying to stir up trouble in nations that are afflicted by civil wars.

"Are we involved in Libya? Are we involved in the Sudan?" he asked.

The Trump administration says Iran has backed militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere for years that have carried out violent attacks on civilians and undermined governments, while backing a brutal regime in Syria led by Bashar al Assad. The administration has defended its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, saying the country is a crucial counterweight to Iran and a loyal ally. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned the killing of Khashoggi but said last year that the "kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East."

Since Washington tightened oil sanctions on Iran in April, the two countries have entered into a tense showdown around the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for the world's oil shipments.

Zarif was asked if he had the shape of an agreement in mind that could end the standoff and that leaders in both countries could support.

"As a diplomat, I have to always think about alternatives. That's my job. But it is not my job to make those alternatives public because otherwise, I would not be able to uses those alternatives," he said. "I have several."

Zarif outlined one which he described as "a substantial move." He suggested that Iran and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear accord, known as the JCPOA, could simply move up the date of a key provision that was originally planned to enter into force in 2023.

Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. agreed to end all sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to what's known as the "additional protocol," requiring a full disclosure of Iran's nuclear history and an agreement to permit surprise international inspections anywhere on Iranian territory.

"In October 2023, we are supposed to do two things," Zarif said. "Iran is supposed to ratify the additional protocol and the United States Congress is supposed to lift the sanctions. If he wants more for more, he can lift the sanctions. He has said he will take any measure to Congress. Fine! Lift the sanctions and you'll have the Additional Protocol."

President Trump, he said, could agree to that "tomorrow."

The foreign minister told NBC News on Monday in an interviewthat he believed prudence prevailed when Trump chose not to retaliate against Iran after it shot down a U.S. drone in the Gulf.

Zarif told NBC Iran was ready to enter into negotiations with the United States if Trump lifted an array of sanctions he has imposed since 2017. Trump pulled Washington out of the nuclear deal last year. The agreement between Iran and world powers curtailed Tehran's nuclear program in return for an easing of U.S. and international sanctions.

Dan De Luce reported from Aspen, Colo.