Iran is serious about regional dialogue

April 25, 2021 - 20:51

TEHRAN – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has embarked on a new regional tour to deepen and expand Iran’s ties amid reports of a possible thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced Saturday that Zarif will head to Iraq and Qatar on Sunday to hold talks with senior officials of the two Arab countries, which enjoy warm relations with Iran and, in some cases, acted as a go-between to soothe tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. 

Khatibzadeh put Zarif’s visit in the broader context of improving bilateral relations and following up on regional and transregional talks. 

Zarif began his tour with a message of sympathy to Iraq over the tragic incident in a Baghdad hospital that killed 82 people and injured more than 100 others. 

“I condole with the brotherly nation and government of Iraq and the families of the victims on the tragic incident and huge catastrophe of Baghdad's Ibn Khatib Hospital. I wish divine mercy for the martyrs of this incident and speedy recovery for the injured,” Zarif said on Twitter. 

A massive explosion rocked Ibn al-Khatib hospital of Baghdad on Saturday after an oxygen cylinder exploded in an intensive care ward at the hospital. 

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the chief Iranian diplomat will pay a visit to Iraq on Monday, and thus confirming that the visit was postponed, possibly due to the hospital incident. 

Khatibzadeh also extended the Iranian nation and government's condolences and deep sympathy to the Iraqi nation and government, especially the families of the victims, over the tragic incident at Baghdad's Ibn Khatib Hospital.

Zarif also visited the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which has played a remarkable role in exchanging messages between Iran and other countries in the region and beyond. Zarif’s visit to Qatar has also been put in the context of regional issues. Zarif arrived in Doha on Sunday and met with his Qatari counterpart.

“For the Islamic Republic of Iran, relations with Qatar and all other Persian Gulf littoral states is very important. The Sunday visit of his Excellency Dr. Zarif to Doha in the context of expanding and deepening bilateral relations with Qatar, especially after the recent developments in the region and the world, is very promising,” Hamidreza Dehghani, Iran’s ambassador to Qatar, said on Twitter. 

During his regional tour, Zarif is expected to discuss bilateral issues. But regional issues will also be discussed and one of the most important issues in the region at the present time is the ongoing talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which took place in Baghdad earlier this month. 

Western media outlets reported last week that officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia held direct talks in Baghdad for the first time since the two regional rivals severed diplomatic ties in 2016.

The Financial Times reported on Sunday that Saudi and Iranian officials held the first round of their bilateral talks in Baghdad on April 9 and the next round was scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. Citing regional officials, the newspaper said the Yemeni Ansarallah’s attacks on Saudi Arabia were discussed in the negotiations.

Reuters confirmed the Saudi-Iranian talks, saying they touched on Lebanon, which is facing a political vacuum amid a dire financial crisis.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 after Iranian protesters, enraged by the Saudi execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimer al-Nimr, stormed its embassy in Tehran. Since then, Saudi Arabia has struck a tough tone on Iran and strongly supported former U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

But the Saudis changed their tone of voice after their ally Trump lost the U.S. presidential election in November. 

Having proposed several peace initiatives for the Persian Gulf, Iran has welcomed the new Saudi approach. Khatibzadeh responded to foreign media reports of talks between Tehran and Riyadh in Baghdad by saying that Iran supports dialogue with the Saudis, though he did not confirm those talks. But the spokesman did not deny the talks either. 

“We have seen these press reports. Conflicting quotes have been reported in these reports. The Islamic Republic of Iran has always welcomed dialogue with the Saudi kingdom and considered it in the interest of the peoples of the two countries as well as regional peace and stability. [Iran] will continue to think this way,” Khatibzadeh said.
 
Officially, Saudi Arabia remained silent about the Baghdad talks, but it showed little enthusiasm about the talks. Some observers said the Saudis are testing the waters to see whether they can reach a middle ground with Iran on some hotspots in the region. But others sought to downplay the importance of the talks by casting doubts on Iran’s seriousness. Al-Arab, a London-based newspaper owned by the United Arab Emirates, accused Tehran of pursuing talks with Riyadh only to strengthen its negotiating position at the Vienna talks.  

This is while Iran has long been calling on the Saudis to change tack and enter constructive dialogue with Iran on regional issues even during the Trump administration. If fact, Iran proposed an initiative called Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) to reduce tensions in the region. 

Iran reiterated its readiness to discuss this initiative after Joe Biden won the U.S. election in November. Instead of welcoming the Iranian initiative for peace, the Saudis asked the negotiating partners of Iran to include them in the Vienna talks, a demand that elicited a response from Zarif in December last year. 

“Dear neighbors Why ask US/E3 for inclusion in talks with Iran when: a) There won't be ANY talks about OUR region with them as they're the problem themselves b) We can speak directly about our region without outside meddling. Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) is still on the table,” Zarif tweeted on December 8 after Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region called on the U.S. to include them in any future talks with Iran.

In addition, the top Iranian diplomat also welcomed a proposal by Qatar on launching dialogue between Iran and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has expressed hope that a summit between leaders of the six-member Persian Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran would happen.

“We are hopeful that this [summit] would happen and we still believe that this should happen. And I think this is also a desire that being shared among the other GCC countries. I just mentioned to you that there is a difference between the countries on the way how to approach such a dialogue. Also from the Iranian side. They have expressed their willingness several times to engage with the GCC countries,” the Qatari foreign minister said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in January. 

Zarif positively responded to the Qatar proposal. “Iran welcomes my brother FM @MBA_AlThani_'s call for inclusive dialogue in our region. As we have consistently emphasized, the solution to our challenges lies in collaboration to jointly form a 'strong region': peaceful, stable, prosperous & free from global or regional hegemony,” he tweeted on January 19.

During his visit to Qatar and Iraq, Zarif is likely to call for regional dialogue. Whether the Saudis welcome this call remains to be seen. But this time, Iran seems to be serious in soothing the concerns of some of its neighbors.

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