In First, Top Iranian Diplomat Says Talks on Ballistic Missiles Possible

Mohammad Javad Zarif offered an initially high price for such negotiations — the halt of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia May 8, 2019.
Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters

Iran's foreign minister has suggested for the first time that the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations with the U.S., a possible opening for talks as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal.

Mohammad Javad Zarif offered an initially high price for such negotiations — the halt of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.

But the fact that he mentioned it at all potentially represents a change in policy. The country's ballistic missile program remains under control of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The comment comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear program after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago.

Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.

However, those tensions also have seen the U.S. send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Mideast. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.

Zarif brought up the ballistic missile offer during an interview with NBC News that aired Monday night as he's in New York for meetings at the United Nations. He mentioned the UAE spending $22 billion and Saudi Arabia spending $67 billion on weapons last year, many of them American-made, while Iran spent only $16 billion in comparison.

"These are American weaponry that is going into our region, making our region ready to explode," Zarif said. "So if they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region."

Trump during his time in the White House has pointed to arms sales to the Mideast as important to the American economy, so it remains unclear how he'd react to cutting into those purchases.

Zarif's comments marked the first time an Iranian official has mentioned even the possibility of talks on the Iranian missiles.

Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran has faced a variety of economic sanctions. That has cut into Iran's ability to buy advanced weaponry abroad. While Gulf Arab nations have purchased advanced fighter jets, Iran still relies on pre-1979 U.S. fighter jets, as well as other aging Soviet MiGs and other planes.

Facing that shortfall, Iran instead invested heavily into its ballistic missile program. That's both due to sanctions and the memory of the missile attacks launched by Saddam Hussein during Iran's bloody 1980s war with Iraq.

Khamenei reportedly has restricted the range of ballistic missiles manufactured in Iran to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). While that keeps Europe out of range, it means the Iranian missiles can hit much of the Middle East, including Israel and American military bases in the region.

In pulling out of the deal, Trump in part blamed the accord not touching on Iran's ballistic missile program. The U.S. fears Iran could use its missile technology and space program to build nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, something Tehran denies it wants to do.