NEW YORK – Iran's top diplomat scolded President Donald Trump on Wednesday for a weekend tweet about a nonexistent Iranian missile launch and essentially ruled out renegotiating or launching follow-up talks to a landmark nuclear accord that Trump is threatening to dismantle.
"We need to check our facts before we make statements," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It worries me that people play with facts and produce alternative facts."
He also criticized a recent referendum on independence by Iraq's Kurdish minority as "dangerous" to stability in a Middle East already beset by efforts to defeat the Islamic State extremist group and civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
And Zarif seemed to float the possibility of a prisoner exchange for several detained Americans in Iran, responding to a question about their fate by raising the situation of several Iranians held or being pursued by the United States for sanctions violations.
But the minister reserved his sharpest scorn for Trump, who on Saturday blasted Iran in a Tweet that renewed criticism of its 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers including the United States.
"Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel," the president wrote. "They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!"
But it turns out there was no Iranian ballistic missile launch, according to Zarif and U.S. officials.
It's unclear where Trump got his information, but it apparently did not come from U.S. intelligence agencies, which keep a continuous lookout for missile launches around the globe. As president, Trump could easily have checked with the CIA or other intelligence agencies to verify whether Iran had actually test-fired a missile.
Zarif also declared the U.S. leader's newly extended travel ban restrictions on Iran to be "an insult to the entire Iranian nation."
The restrictions, which go into effect Oct. 18, cover citizens of Iran, Chad, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — and some Venezuelan government officials and their families. Iranians were also targeted in Trump's earlier bans.
"It is unfortunate that for irrelevant political reasons the president of the United States decides to alienate ... and antagonize an entire nation who have not harmed anybody," Zarif said.
"I believe that we need to respond to the measures that were taken by the United States in order to preserve the dignity of our citizens," he said, "but how we respond is a decision that we will make."
Regarding the seven-nation nuclear deal, Zarif rejected what he called the "myth" that a renegotiation is possible — as argued by some in the Trump administration.
He said Trump "would open a Pandora's box" by trying to re-litigate the 2015 accord's time limits on various Iranian nuclear activities — which were the most intensively negotiated issue.
Key limits on Iran's stockpiling of uranium and production of plutonium, both representing potential paths to a nuclear bomb, expire after 10 and 15 years. Trump and his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, have argued that that amounts to a devastating flaw in the agreement.
"It doesn't mean that after that time Iran will be free to develop nuclear weapons," Zarif said. "Iran does not consider nuclear weapons to be in its strategic interest, and at the same time we'll be bound by international obligations not to develop nuclear weapons afterward."
The Iranian minister also ruled out a new agreement, as some U.S. and European officials have called for.
"We need to be realistic in our expectations," Zarif said. "We dealt with all these issues. It took us many years. It took us 10 years of posturing on all sides and two years of serious negotiations to reach this deal. I don't expect that a new round will produce any better results. In fact, a new round will get us in a quagmire that nobody will be able to get out of."
Trump has to decide by Oct. 15 whether to certify Iranian compliance with the agreement.
Iran and the five other parties — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — have been urging the United States not to pull out of the deal.
Zarif said that if the U.S. withdraws "then we're not bound by that agreement and we will then decide how we want to deal with it."
"It does not mean that Iran wants to pursue a nuclear weapons option," he said. "But what is important is if the deal is broken, then Iran has many options, one of which would be to have an unlimited yet peaceful nuclear energy program."
On another persistent American demand, Zarif said there were no negotiations currently going on with the United States for the release of U.S. citizens being held in Iran.
"Unfortunately there are a large number of Iranians who have been detained by the United States, both in the United States as well as through the extradition request of the United States throughout the world," he said. "These people, including pregnant women, are in prison for technical violations of sanctions that no longer apply today."
Asked if he was suggesting a prisoner exchange such as the one that took place under former president Barack Obama in 2016, he said: "Well it happened once but what I'm implying here is the application of double standards."
Zarif was then asked whether the government would be open to a prisoner exchange. "Well, I cannot predict the outcome of a negotiation that is not taking place right now," he said.
Turning to this week's Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq, Zarif said that Iran was opposed to the vote "like every other nation in the world." According to official results of the non-binding referendum announced Wednesday, 92 percent supported independence.
Iran has a large Kurdish minority along with Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and supporters of an independent state of Kurdistan have argued that Kurds from all four countries should be included.
Zarif called the Kurds "our eternal friends," noting that Iran came to their assistance when they were fighting Islamic State extremists in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.
But he said: "We believe that this referendum is dangerous for stability in the region and doesn't serve the interest of our Iraqi Kurdish friends."
Zarif also defended support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and suggested his country could intervene elsewhere in the Arab world to fight extremists. Critics, led by Saudi Arabia and Israel, say Iran is not focused on extremism but instead is using proxies such as Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels to destabilize the Middle East.
Zarif said Iran has fought against "extremists and terrorists" starting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, in Iraq since 2003 and in Irbil. In Syria, he said, "the government and resistance forces have been able to achieve military victory over the terrorists ... to a really important extent."
"If we need to go to the assistance of any other government in the region in order for them to fight extremists and terrorists, we are ready," Zarif said. "This is an open declaration that Iran is always on the side of those who fight extremism and terrorism."