Iran engages regional contacts through Omani proxy but doubts endure

The Zarif-bin Alawi meeting was perceived by experts as part of efforts by Muscat to achieve a breakthrough.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Seeing eye to eye. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi (R) in Tehran. (AFP)
Seeing eye to eye. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi (R) in Tehran. (AFP)

LONDON - Recent events could indicate that Iran is trying to mend fences with its Arab neighbours.

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi made an unannounced trip January 21 to Tehran to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in what the Iranian Fars News Agency said was to “discuss issues of common concern.”

A day after the talks Zarif tweeted in Arabic that “Iran remains open to dialogue with its neighbours and expresses its willingness to participate in any complementary efforts that work in the region’s favour. It welcomes any step that would restore hope to its people and bring stability and prosperity to the region.”

A high-ranking Iranian official touted the benefits of Saudi Arabia and Iran ironing out their differences.

“The relations between Iran and its neighbour Saudi Arabia should not become like the relationship between Tehran and the United States… Tehran and Riyadh should work together to resolve their problems,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Iranian president’s Chief-of-Staff Mahmoud Vaezi as saying.

A top adviser to Iran’s parliament speaker hinted at improved relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours. “Most probably, in the not-too-distant future, there will be better conditions and bilateral relations between Iran and these two countries,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian, referring to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said on January 19.

He said Iraqi officials and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, in particular, have been trying to mediate talks between Tehran and Riyadh.

The Zarif-bin Alawi meeting was perceived by experts as part of efforts by Muscat to achieve a breakthrough.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran have “directly exchanged messages in recent months and also communicated through intermediaries in Oman, Kuwait and Pakistan.” The newspaper quoted Saudi, European and US officials, who described the exchanges as an attempt to calm tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

The Journal report referenced comments by Iranian Ambassador to France Bahram Ghasemi that Iran had proposed a peace plan to Saudi Arabia that “includes a mutual pledge of non-aggression and cooperation, aimed at securing oil exports following a spate of tanker attacks.”

Saudi Arabia’s ties with Iran have been turbulent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Tehran’s efforts of propagating it beyond its borders. In 2016, Riyadh cut ties with Tehran after an attack on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran.

Commenting on the sidelines of the Davos economic conference on the Zarif tweet that Iran was ready to talk with its Arab neighbours, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the issue “is really up to” Tehran.

Prince Faisal said while “many countries” offered to mediate talks between Tehran and Riyadh, Iran would have to accept that it “cannot further its regional agenda through violence” as a condition for any talks.

The Saudi diplomat probably factored into his assessment aggressive activities by Iran’s proxies, such as the January 18 attack by Houthi rebels on a military training camp in Marib, Yemen, that killed more than 120 people and internal political divisions in Iran regarding rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates beyond de-escalation.

Iran is facing many severe issues, including US sanctions and demonstrations across the country from a population that appears dissatisfied with the ruling regime.

Resolving matters with its Gulf Arab neighbours, experts said, could be part of Tehran’s attempts to establish conditions that could lead to the lifting of sanctions crippling its economy. Much, however, depends on Iran’s willingness to change its policies, including that of confrontation with countries of the region and the world, including its showdown with the United States.

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