While Iranian officials have refused to negotiate with US President Donald Trump, diplomatic activity this week showed that they were actively negotiating and travelling around the world from Europe to the region and even meeting with members of the US Congress in New York.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dined with US Democratic Party senator Dianne Feinstein, former chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, when he was visiting New York recently.
It seems that Iranian officials are keeping channels open with the US, while at the same time claiming that they are not interested in conducting formal talks.
Perhaps the contradictions come from uncertainty among Iranian politicians in Tehran. The government led by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seems to want to talk to the US, but Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems not to have agreed to this at this stage.
Keeping the options open in case of need may be the best way forward for the time being, and no one is better able to prepare the ground than Zarif.
Due to his knowledge of the West and the US in particular, Zarif is well qualified to engage in travelling diplomacy, and his informal negotiations may be a way of deterring a possible escalation of the tensions with Iran by the United States.
Having the region support Iran to resist possible US military action is also important for Tehran. Zarif’s intense regional travel, his friendship approaches and his proposal for a friendship treaty with Iran’s Arab neighbours may be part of this strategy.
On 26 May, standing with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad Zarif praised Iraqi efforts to reduce regional tensions. There was also a hint of an Iraqi willingness to mediate between Iran and Iraq.
Mohammad Halbousi, spokesperson of the Iraqi parliament, said recently that his country could act as a mediator between Iran and the US, as the current tensions between these two countries were having direct impacts on Iraq.
While all the evidence shows that the government in Tehran is interested in entering into talks with the US, Khamenei is not in favour of the talks, but he may be sending his emissaries around the region to keep back channels open for Tehran.
Rouhani tried to discuss the matter on Sunday when he talked in public about the “authority” a president needed to execute his orders and again mentioned a possible referendum.
He said indirectly that his government did not have the power to negotiate with the US, adding that “some solutions are not in the hands of the government.”
What the Iranian public will make of this clarification remains to be seen. The public has passed the stage of caring for reformists or conservatives.
The nuclear deal is seen as being a good thing because it has deterred the hostility of other countries such as the US or Israel, but otherwise few have seen any benefits from the deal.
It has not made the regime in Iran friendlier towards its own people, and it has not brought them particular benefits. For the Western countries as well, having to deal with the angry ayatollahs in their own best interests comes before their own people.
The proposed signature of a friendship treaty between Iran and the countries of the region is reminiscent of the time before the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015 when Zarif wrote an opinion piece in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on the importance of having good relations with Iran’s neighbours.
However, for Iran it seems that the time for mending relations with its Arab neighbours never really comes, and instead they are disregarded or in some cases disrespected.
This game of playing with the aspirations of the Iranians now extends to the regional countries. Iran’s Arab neighbours are important because the regime in Tehran wants their support against the US. In this respect, they are like the Iranian public, which only becomes important when the regime wants a show of patriotism or photo-ops in election periods to help prove its legitimacy.
There may still be some time to come before the news emerges that Khamenei has told Zarif and Rouhani to resume talks with the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran’s private negotiations