Iran Takes Charm Offensive to the Persian Gulf

Thomas Erdbrink — New York Times Dec 4, 2013

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had already visited Kuwait, Qatar and Oman before travelling to the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday. Click to enlarge

Iran’s top diplomat, who only last month brokered a groundbreaking nuclear deal with the world powers, is now traveling the Persian Gulf region, trying to mend ties with Arab neighbors, Sunni nations that harbor deep suspicions of Shiite Iran.

On Wednesday, the diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived in the United Arab Emirates, having stopped in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman this week, with the goal of undoing years of regional tensions, not only sectarian but also the fruit of the confrontational approach of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Zarif met with several Emirati officials, among them Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, where an estimated 400,000 Iranians live and work in companies that are often front offices for trade with Iran — much of it illicit, because of sanctions. Mr. Zarif also invited the Emirates’ president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to visit Tehran.

“My interpretation is that these countries as a whole are very much interested in opening a new chapter in their ties with the Islamic republic, which we hope will benefit peace and stability as well as the progress of the people in the region,” Mr. Zarif was quoted as saying by Iran’s state television on Tuesday.

It was only months ago that Mr. Zarif and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, shocked the West by sending New Year’s wishes to Jews and indicated a new flexibility in negotiating an end to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. It now seems that the charm offensive is being directed to regional states, which are just as much a priority to Iran as restoring ties with the West, said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“No matter what happens between Iran and the West, improving relations with all regional countries is highly important to us,” he said.

The visit comes against a backdrop of long-growing regional and sectarian tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as they compete for power and influence through proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of deliberately destabilizing Syria by supporting Sunni “terrorists” against the Syrian government. Iran is accused by the Saudis and the West of supporting not just Syria but Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that played a critical role in turning the Syrian civil war in the government’s favor in recent months.

In 2010, the White House rebuffed requests by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to “cut off the head of the snake” by destroying Iran’s nuclear sites in a military strike, according to leaked United States diplomatic cables.

On Sunday, while visiting the Qatari capital of Doha, home to the most important United States military command in the region, Mr. Zarif said Iran sought reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the recent nuclear deal and saying Iran posed no threat to other countries in the region. “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” he was quoted as saying by news agencies. “This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have in recent years expanded their stockpiles of advanced arms, buying nearly $42 billion of precision guided bombs, antiship missiles and F-15 warplanes and other weaponry from the United States.

Iran and the Emirates have a longstanding dispute themselves, over three tiny Persian Gulf islands. In April, Mr. Ahmadinejad paid a visit to one, Abu Musa, where both Iranians and Emiratis live, after the Emirates renewed its ownership claim on the island. Mr. Zarif said this week that Iran was ready to discuss ownership of the island.

Mr. Zarif said he intended to travel to Saudi Arabia, but a date would be set only “after consultations with our Saudi brothers,” the semiofficial Mehr News agency quoted him as saying last week. But some days later, Al Quds Al Arabi, an Arab newspaper based in London, wrote that unnamed Saudi officials had said the time was not ripe for such a rapprochement.

Iran’s foreign minister did not stop in Bahrain during his Persian Gulf tour, as relations between the two countries have been strained since the island’s Sunni rulers cracked down on Shiite-led protests two years ago.

One former Iranian lawmaker, who is close to Iran’s conservative faction, said the aim of Mr. Zarif’s visits was not just to reduce regional tensions but to sound an alarm over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions.

“We must not forget that it is Saudi Arabia sponsoring the terrorists in Syria, and they are also saying they want to purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan,” the lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said. “Mr. Zarif should make clear the regional states should not be worried over us, but over the Saudis.”

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