RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The conflict between the U.S. and Iran is one of weapons. It's also one of words. Each side is telling its story to the world. And Iran's leading spokesman is the man we will hear from next. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was expected to visit the United Nations in New York later this week. It would have been one of his periodic chances to make Iran's case before the world. But Zarif says the U.S. has not granted a visa, as the host country is required to do. So he is meeting reporters instead in Tehran. One of those reporters is our own Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered. She is in Tehran all this week, and she joins us now. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Just explain the circumstances of this interview. How and where did you talk with Javad Zarif?
KELLY: Sure. So there is this big conference underway as we speak here in Tehran organized by a think tank tied to the foreign ministry. So it's this huge scene, all these ambassadors and diplomats from all over the region wandering around. I bumped into Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan on my way up the stairs from the ladies room. And among all of the notable figures there was Javad Zarif, who we managed to get 10 minutes with one on one at this conference.
MARTIN: All right. So in that interview, did he say what Iran's next move will be?
KELLY: Yeah. That was my very first question. And he is using strong words, as you would expect. He called the killing of Soleimani, to whom he was personally close, by the way, both an act of terrorism and an act of war. Let me let you hear a little bit of what he said there.
MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: This was an act of aggression, an armed attack - albeit a cowardly armed attack - against an Iranian official in foreign territory. It amounts to war, and we will respond according to our own timing and choice.
KELLY: So, Rachel, of course, I asked him for specifics. Can you tell me if anything is on the table, off the table? We danced around that a little bit. He promised that Iran will exercise what he called its right to self-defense. I will note that as we were speaking, Iranian media was reporting that across town Iran's Parliament had just voted unanimously to designate the U.S. military and the Pentagon as a terrorist organization.
MARTIN: So we know European allies are particularly nervous about the consequences of all this for the nuclear deal. Javad Zarif actually personally negotiated that five years ago. What's his take on where that deal is right now?
KELLY: Well, he insists that it is not dead. He conceded that, at the moment, there's no good news for the nuclear deal. What he confirmed to me was this - that Iran has now suspended all limits on its centrifuge program. But he was very much putting an emphasis on suspended. He said Iran is ready to go back into full compliance when and if circumstances change. And he insisted when I asked point blank, is Iran racing for a nuclear bomb, he said, no, we are not. We don't want a nuclear bomb. That has long been Iran's position, as you know.
MARTIN: Several American citizens are currently being detained in Iran. Did he say anything about their fate?
KELLY: He pretty much closed the door on the prospect of their releases coming anytime soon. We talked about the case just last month, you'll remember, of this Princeton grad student who had been held in Iran. He was swapped for an Iranian professor who'd been arrested in the U.S, and that had raised the hopes for more such exchanges. So I asked Zarif this...
And those channels are still open?
ZARIF: I don't think at this time we can discuss those issues. We have to deal with the present issue at hand, unfortunately.
KELLY: If I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying there will not be future exchanges while the situation is so tense between Washington...
ZARIF: Well, I think those talks are certainly suspended now.
KELLY: And that, of course, Rachel, is not the news that families of those Americans and others being held here were hoping to hear.
MARTIN: Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly on the ground in Tehran giving us a debrief on her interview today with Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif. We will hear their full conversation tonight on All Things Considered. Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: You are welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.