Lebanon Pulse

Zarif’s regional tour all about Syria

Article Summary
While in Lebanon, Iran’s foreign minister might be exploring a back channel to an easing of tensions with Saudi Arabia in the formation of a new Lebanese government.

The “smile diplomacy” that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif launched in the Middle East took him on Jan. 12 to Lebanon, the first stop on a regional tour that will also include visits to Jordan and Iraq. According to Al-Monitor’s sources in Tehran, there is also a possibility Zarif will pay a visit to war-torn Syria, which, regardless, will dominate most of his talks, along with issues of mutual interest.

It is almost certain that Iran will not take part in the forthcoming Geneva II talks on Syria, but that does not mean that it is stuck on the sidelines. An Iranian source informed Al-Monitor on Tehran's thinking, asserting, “Whoever is meeting in Geneva knows that Iran is vital for any solution in Syria.” He added, “These countries need our efforts, and we are genuinely keen to do our part to make sure this conference reaches a happy ending. Part of these efforts is this regional tour.”

Zarif visited Turkey on Jan. 4, and his stops in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan will complete the tour of states surrounding Syria aimed at understanding their views and commitments to closing their borders to bar militants from entering Syria and smuggling arms. “Iran has a message to convey to these countries: There’s no chance that Assad will fall militarily, and it’s important to cooperate to pave the way for a political solution now to rid thousands of [people] of the tragedy they are going through because of the continuing war,” offered Al-Monitor's source. He said that it would be in the interest of these countries to be cooperative in the effort, arguing, “Some countries seem to be ignoring the danger of al-Qaeda to them. They think they are only a transit zone to Syria, but look at Lebanon and Iraq. They have started bleeding.”

In Lebanon, Zarif is undoubtedly seeking answers to questions about the death of Majid al-Majid, the Saudi national who led the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, al-Qaeda’s Lebanese branch. Tehran wants details especially because Majid’s group claimed responsibility for the twin suicide attacks on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last November.

“Is there any link between al-Majid and any regional powers?” asked the Al-Monitor source. “Did he provide any details? What about the second Saudi man? Who is he, and what is his role in the group? These are all questions Zarif will ask. This was an attack on Iran, and Iran wants to know the details.”

Besides meetings with President Michel Suleiman, parliament speaker Nabih Berri, resigned Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, Zarif met on Jan. 13 with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Iran's No. 1 ally in the country who likely provided Zarif insights on the Lebanese scene.

Another important issue Zarif will discuss is the agreement among Lebanese political factions to form a new government, an agreement that many in Lebanon believe would not have happened without an Iranian-Saudi green light, which raises the possibility of the advent of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement at the Lebanese gate.

Zarif’s visit to Iraq will concern that country’s war against terror and growing bilateral ties. “Iraq is at the top of Iran’s allies in the region," Al-Monitor's source explained. Baghdad is facing a regional war similar to the one in Syria, he contended, pointing out, “One of the main reasons Iraq is facing such a war is the country’s stances. There are countries in the region that aren’t happy with the Iraqi position, therefore Zarif will convey a message from Iran that reflects a readiness to help wherever possible.”

Another pressing topic is the internal rift between political factions and the uncertainty of actually holding scheduled, forthcoming elections. Some political factions in Iraq are requesting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not seek a third term, and some have even visited Tehran to ask the Iranians to convince him to step aside. A week ago, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi was in Tehran, and this matter was one of the main points on his agenda.

Jordan is an unusual stop for Iran’s foreign minister as relations between the two countries have always been described as cold. This will be the first such visit during President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure and the second within a year's time for an Iranian foreign minister. The previous trip was made in May 2013 by Zarif's predecessor, Ali Akbar Salehi, who said his meeting with King Abdullah had been positive.

“Syria is the main issue once again, but not the only one,” explained the Al-Monitor source. “Jordan’s role in the region might be quiet but [is] still efficient. Iran wants to hear from the Jordanians what they think about the crisis in Syria and Iraq, especially since it’s between both countries, and the crisis in both countries might spill over.”

Zarif’s visit to Syria, should he go, will mark the first visit by a senior official in Rouhani’s government to Damascus and would follow a week after Faysal al-Mokdad, Syrian deputy foreign minister, visited Tehran on Jan. 6.

Much has been said in previous months about the different approach by the new Iranian administration, but for now, there is still nothing on which to build. According to Al-Monitor's source, Zarif’s whole tour is about Syria, so he will have no other subject to discuss. The visit is a morale boost for the regime more than anything else, as much of the things to be discussed are already being discussed outside the Foreign Ministry through Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard's Al-Quds Brigades, who is believed to be the real caretaker, in coordination with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Found in: syrian civil war, saudi-iranian rivalry, mohammad javad zarif, lebanon, iraq, iran, hezbollah, hassan rouhani

Ali Hashem is a journalist with a focus on Iran. He is the former Tehran bureau chief for the Arab news network Al Mayadeen, and a former reporter for Al Jazeera and the BBC. He writes extensively on Iran for Al-Monitor and Al Mayadeen and his articles have appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, The National and Tokyo's Facta, among others. On Twitter: @alihashem_tv


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