Zarif's 12-nation tour highlights an active Iranian diplomacy

Despite the US sanctions imposed on him, Iran's foreign minister was not hindered in his whirlwind diplomatic tour of Europe and Asia.

al-monitor Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Aug. 26, 2019.  Photo by How Hwee Young/Pool via REUTERS.
Saeid Jafari

Saeid Jafari


Topics covered


Sep 13, 2019

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently wrapped up a 26-day tour of 12 countries. His visits had four clear goals as well as a less evident one, yet they all display Iran's active diplomacy around the world.

Zarif began his international tour Aug. 11. In a period of less than one month, he visited Qatar, Kuwait, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, China, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. These 12 countries, spanning from the East to the West, all hosted Iran’s foreign minister despite sanctions placed on him by the US Treasury on July 31.

Zarif’s destinations were selected with a goal in mind. He began his travels in Qatar, a friend of Iran in the Persian Gulf, and followed it up with a visit to Kuwait. While these two first destinations may seem coincidental, a deeper look at Zarif's speeches and remarks during his visits indicates that he intentionally began his tour with regional countries.

During a Sept. 5 meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Zarif said regional security can be achieved through regional cooperation and cannot be purchased from outside. Zarif has previously stressed this issue, but while in Kuwait and Qatar he emphasized the need to pursue a collective regional security model without foreign forces

Zarif then visited Finland, Sweden and Norway: three destinations chosen with the aim of preserving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After prioritizing regional issues, Zarif flew to Scandinavia to speak about the need to remain committed to the nuclear deal while also pushing Europe to continue to pursue an approach independent from the United States. Following his European visit, Zarif tweeted: “I stressed necessity of both multilateralism & rule of law in age of reckless US unilateralism.”

During his European visits Zarif maintained a message that was consistent with the one he has pursued since President Donald Trump took office: to convey to Europe that it should distance itself from Washington's unilateral policies. In a July 2018 interview with Euronews conducted by this correspondent, Zarif also touched on this, saying: “Are the people of Europe prepared to accept US national interest dominating the decision-making process in the global economy? Are they prepared to accept this? Or are they prepared to stand against this? This is a question that European companies need to ask themselves, that the European governments need to ask themselves."

Zarif emphasized this after his recent meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. "I don’t think America holds all the cards," Zarif said. "If Europe and the international community decide to do this, they can take the necessary measures to preserve the nuclear deal."

The highlight of Zarif’s international tour was perhaps when he bypassed Asia and flew to the French resort of Biarritz, where the G-7 meeting was taking place. In Biarritz, Zarif held an hourslong meeting with Macron and German officials to review how Europe could help preserve the nuclear deal. 

A day later, Zarif embarked on his tour of East Asia to meet with the biggest buyers of Iran’s oil. The third phase of his diplomacy thus focused on the economic dimensions of the nuclear deal, starting in China. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Zarif told reporters that China and Russia were two of Iran’s allies in the JCPOA. “If the international community, other signatories to the JCPOA and our friends in the JCPOA like China and Russia want this achievement to be preserved," he said, "they should make sure the Iranian people can benefit from this deal by taking practical measures."

Zarif then traveled to Japan, which, along with China, is among the top five buyers of Iranian oil. Afterward he was off to Malaysia, briefly returning to Tehran and then off again to Russia, another friendly country. Just as Iran’s relations with China are important in terms of economics, its ties with Moscow are also key for political and security issues, which is why Zarif met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. He tweeted afterward, "Focus on bilateral ties, regional issues, Persian Gulf security, and latest developments regarding the JCPOA."

The back-to-back trips did not end there. He again left Tehran Sept. 3 for Bangladesh, to attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association Summit. He capped off his nearly monthlong tour with a visit to Indonesia. In summary, the four aims of his visits were: to save the foundations for regional dialogue and improved relations in the Persian Gulf; to convince Europe to preserve the JCPOA; to keep Iran’s economic customers in East Asia; and to preserve Iran's and Russia’s strategic relations on regional security issues.

Yet the less evident goal of all these visits was perhaps a message to the Trump administration: that less than 40 days after the imposition of US sanctions on Zarif, dozens of countries still welcomed the Iranian foreign minister.

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