Zarif visits Pakistan as Iran celebrates post-Trump era

Iran’s foreign minister is in Islamabad to discuss a range of issues with Pakistani officials, as US President Donald Trump’s impending departure seems to have opened new windows of diplomacy for the Islamic Republic.

al-monitor Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, arrives for a meeting at United Nations headquarters, July 18, 2019, in New York City.  Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Nov 10, 2020

​Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has landed in neighboring Pakistan for a two-day visit in which he will discuss bilateral and regional issues with his counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Given the composition of the delegation accompanying the Iranian foreign minister, Tehran seemed to be after Pakistan’s assistance in bypassing US sanctions that have pushed the Iranian economy to the verge of collapse. As a US ally in the region, Islamabad has at different intervals offered to play the mediator’s role between Tehran and Washington under the Trump administration.

The trip, which fit into Iran’s doctrine of “neighbors first,” also marked the Iranian top diplomat’s first foreign mission after Donald Trump became the outgoing president of the United States following his defeat to the Democratic camp’s nominee, Joe Biden. Trump’s departure has brought hopes to the government of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran for new openings after four years of relentless “maximum pressure” from Washington.

What further highlights the importance of Zarif’s visit is Islamabad’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, a regional foe of the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016 after a group of Iranian “rogue” hard-liners stormed the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital. Tensions with Saudi Arabia are believed to be part of Zarif’s agenda in Islamabad, as the Pakistani government also maintains friendly ties with Riyadh, with potential deal-brokering capabilities that could bring the two rivals to the negotiating table.

Before his visit to Pakistan, Zarif sent a “sincere message” to neighbors: “Trump's gone in 70 days. But we'll remain here forever. Betting on outsiders to provide security is never a good gamble.” Iran’s rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been clinching with the Trump administration multiple arms deals with the aim of curbing a perceived Iranian security threat. “We extend our hand to our neighbors for dialog to resolve differences,” Zarif added in his message. Iran has on multiple occasions offered unconditional talks to bury the hatchet with Saudi Arabia, but no breakthrough has emerged so far.

Iran’s political circles are debating the opportunities that Trumps’ farewell could bring to the Islamic Republic after years of exclusion prompted by the US president’s pressure on anyone seeking business with Tehran. But a Biden administration might not necessarily be as promising as the Iranians had pictured it, either. There are fears in Tehran that before the closure of his term, Trump will inundate the Islamic Republic with a “flood of new sanctions” that could grant Biden an upper hand in any negotiations with Iran.

Picking up on that, the hard-liners, who have always been skeptical of any US-Iran relations, are arguing these days that Trump’s “iron fist” will remain firmly in place even under Biden. It’s the same fist, only hidden by “velvet” gloves, according to ultraconservative daily, Javan.

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