In recent visits to Kuwait and Qatar, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed with regional leaders issues ranging from US plans for an international coalition in the Persian Gulf to the crisis in Yemen and dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
Zarif arrived in Qatar, a country with which Tehran has good relations, on Aug. 11 and met with officials from that country. He later took to Twitter to describe his one-day visit to Doha as very fruitful. His trip came as President Hassan Rouhani had a telephone conversation with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, also on Aug. 11. According to an informed source in the Iranian administration who spoke with Al-Monitor, “Various issues, including US plans for a [naval] presence in the Persian Gulf under the pretext of protecting commercial shipping, were discussed during Zarif’s trip. Iran also informed Qatar that implementing this plan will have unfavorable consequences for Washington.”
Just days later, on Aug. 17, Zarif traveled to Kuwait, a country which, unlike Qatar, has good relations with Iran’s main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Sources told Al-Monitor that Yemen and US plans for an international coalition to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf were among the issues discussed during various meetings. While in Kuwait, Zarif also presented Iran's proposal for a regional dialogue forum and non-aggression pact. Tehran hopes Kuwait will convey the message to Saudi Arabia.
Kamran Karami, an Iranian analyst focused on Persian Gulf issues, told Al-Monitor, “Tehran, by proposing the regional dialogue forum and non-aggression pact, is trying to steer the atmosphere toward one of stability in order to reduce the increasing tensions with the US due to their inclusive nature. If in doing so, Tehran manages to also win Saudi Arabia’s favorable opinion regarding its proposal, it will have gained a major achievement amidst the Persian Gulf crisis.”
Zarif also tweeted about the goals of his visit to Kuwait on Aug. 18 and referred to the fact that in his meetings with Kuwaiti officials he had place emphasis on the proposed regional dialogue forum and non-aggression pact.
Commenting on why Kuwait was chosen for conveying this message, Karami said, “It seems Oman’s traditional and neutral role in the Iran-Saudi rivalry is no longer effective, which is why Iran has decided to turn to a player who could have a bigger impact on Saudi Arabia.”
Iran’s active regional diplomacy, however, is not limited to just this. While Zarif was engaged in talks with Kuwaiti officials, a trilateral meeting was also being held in Tehran between the Iranians, representatives from the Yemeni Houthi Movement and ambassadors of four European countries, including Germany, France, Britain and Italy, on the latest developments in war-torn Yemen.
A high-ranking Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor: “In [Zarif’s] visits to both Kuwait and Qatar, Yemen was one of the key issues discussed. However, considering the significance of a Houthi delegation being present in Tehran, a meeting was also held in Tehran with the presence of European ambassadors to find a solution for exiting the current crisis in Yemen.”
This high-ranking diplomat described the trilateral meeting in Tehran as constructive and said, “The views of the European sides regarding the crisis in Yemen has changed considerably from the past and it seems that they have more than ever reached this conclusion that the Houthi movement is an undeniable reality in Yemen.”
Meanwhile, at a time of rising tensions, with tankers being seized in the Persian Gulf and Gibraltar as well as US efforts to start a new front of pressure against Iran, it is not clear how much Tehran’s regional efforts will succeed in neutralizing Washington's efforts.
Nosratollah Tajik, Iran’s former ambassador to Jordan, told Al-Monitor, “The coalition sought by the US in the Persian Gulf is full of contradictions both in terms of structure and approach, and it is unlikely to take shape. However, the hopelessness of countries south of the Persian Gulf about Trump fully supporting the idea has created a good opportunity for Iran to extend its diplomatic efforts.”
Tajik, who is an expert in Middle East issues, added, “In such a situation we need to take confidence-building measures, which Zarif seems to be doing. Establishing a Persian Gulf cooperation organization, which would involve regional countries’ private sectors, instead of seeking traditional security agreements can be a suitable way to lay the ground for collective confidence-building measures.”
However, despite Iran’s efforts, there still seems to be no ray of hope for Saudi flexibility. Riyadh, despite Tehran’s repeated messages, is still not in favor of talks with Iran. Zarif even pointed to this Saudi reluctance during an Aug. 19 meeting with Iranians in Sweden. “I once sent a message to Mr. Saud al-Faisal [the late Saudi foreign minister] that if you think I have no authority, then talk to [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander] Qasem Soleimani on Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But he refused and said the Arab world is none of your business,” Zarif recalled.
Karami said, “It is unlikely that Iran’s efforts will yield a positive response from Saudi Arabia and turn into negotiations for a comprehensive resolution of differences. Saudi Arabia still hopes Trump’s approach will force Iran into giving considerable incentives.”
Less than a month after the July 31 US Department of Treasury sanctions against Zarif, he not only went to Qatar and Kuwait but followed it up with trips to Europe. Meanwhile, as the US increases its pressures against Iran daily, Tehran continues to use all its diplomatic potential in an effort to change and improve the situation.
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