If a single impulse has defined Iranian diplomacy over the past decade, it is the smile of Mohamed Javad Zarif. The Iranian Foreign Minister has consistently used charm to try and free his embattled nation of its rigid shell.
Through such smooth diplomacy and understanding of the West, Zarif, seen as Tehran’s most skilled diplomat since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, helped conclude the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers before former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement two years later.
As chief diplomat of a nation long considered an international pariah, Zarif has led a diplomatic offensive to break his country’s international isolation since he was appointed foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
Last week Zarif tried again to use his beaming visage and diplomatic wit to build confidence with his Arab counterparts, seeking to mend fences with Iran’s neighbours for the sake of regional stability.
Zarif’s route in the Arab Gulf took him to Qatar, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait in a bid to shore up ties that have been strained over Iran’s weapons capabilities and what is seen as its increasing meddling in the region.
The tour was hard on the heels of secret talks reportedly held between top Iranian security officials and a Saudi delegation led by Intelligence Chief Khaled Bin Ali Al-Humaidan in Baghdad on 9 April with the aim of easing tensions between the region’s two arch-rivals.
Zarif’s Gulf tour also followed reports about another secret meeting in Baghdad, this time between Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns and Iranian officials working in the Islamic Republic National Security bureau.
Both Riyadh and Washington downplayed reports of such meetings, though they did not deny Al-Humaidan and Burns travelling to Iraq.
Most importantly, Zarif’s visits fed rising hopes of a breakthrough in the US returning to the Iran nuclear deal following reports about unexpected progress being made at the talks in Vienna.
The initiative occurs at a time of shifting power dynamics as Qatar leverages Gulf reconciliation, Arab powerhouses step up efforts to enhance ties with Iraq and the new US administration seeks to revive the nuclear deal.
The just-completed tours of the Gulf nations by Iran’s chief diplomat have suggested a new proactive diplomacy and attracted significant media attention, but whether Zarif managed to reboot Tehran’s relations with its regional rivals remains to be seen.
While it has pressed a lot of buttons, one positive response to Iran’s push to paint a new picture in the region is evidently missing. Early reactions from key Arab powers seem to be cautious and still posing questions about Tehran’s overall regional strategy.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman has taken a tactical stance. While emphasising that the kingdom has a problem with Iran’s “negative behvaiour”, Bin Salman said in a TV interview that Riyadh seeks good relations with Tehran.
“We do not want Iran to be in a difficult situation. On the contrary, we want Iran to prosper and grow. We have interests in Iran and they have interests in the kingdom to propel the region and the world to growth and prosperity,” he said.
Few conciliatory public stances towards Iran have surfaced in the Arab media in the meantime, probably because very little has been done yet to bridge differences with Iran or tackle acrimonious feelings towards Iran and its regional behaviour.
As expected the strongest reaction came from Israel, which has chastised the Biden administration for its decision to find a way back into the nuclear deal through indirect talks in Vienna.
Israel and the US have different opinions on the Iran deal – Israel has staunchly opposed the pact from the start and several clandestine attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure have been attributed to Israel’s sabotage efforts.
Tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran have festered over Lebanon and Syria as Iran expanded its military presence and that of its proxies after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Israel has routinely carried out raids in Syria, mostly targeting suspected missile and weapons production plants controlled by Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullah forces.
Israeli leaders have recently warned that Israel will not let its security depend on an international agreement to which it is not party. Top Israeli security officials sounded the alarm on Iran, insisting on Israel’s operational freedom.
Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen has even warned that a bad nuclear deal will send the region spiralling into war. He threatened that Israeli warplanes “can reach everywhere in the Middle East – and certainly Iran.”
At the same time, trouble at home may derail Zarif’s diplomatic endevour.
A leaked audio tape in which Zarif bemoans the fact that the Revolutionary Guards dominate the country’s foreign policy and that they embroiled it in Syria’s Civil War at the behest of Russia has caused a political firestorm across Iran.
Zarif continually alludes to hardliners in the regime whose posturing he blames for ruining his efforts and presenting regional and international onlookers with an image that undermines the Rouhani government.
Zarif’s leaked remarks included references to General Qassem Suleimani - the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020 - making decisions that defy the priorities of the Foreign Ministry.
It is not clear who has leaked the three-hour audio tape which is believed to be part of an oral history project covering Rouhani’s two terms in office, though it has emerged while Iran prepares for a presidential election and internal power struggles reach new heights.
Scepticism about Zarif’s venture, however, abounds. Iran’s complicated factional politics seems to be playing out in the rising tension between the Islamic Republic and its neighbours as well as with the West.
Fundamentalist clergymen in the religious establishment and extremists in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are largely believed to be behind Iran’s bellicose policies thrive on confrontation with Iran’s enemies are expected to resist any attempt to abandon regional gains.
These radical heavyweights feel threatened by any new nuclear deal touching on regional security issues, including Iran’s massive ballistic missile programme, advanced drones and weapons arsenal.
They are also opposed to any peaceful gestures towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations in regional policies which could include concessions on withdrawing from Syria and giving up on allies such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Iraqi Shia militias.
Recent reports of Arab powerhouses such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates trying to warm up to Iraq might have set the red lights flashing in Tehran, triggering fear about Arabs trying to pull Iraq out of Iran’s sphere of influence.
This dynamic doesn’t allow Zarif to pose as a strongman who defies the hardliners in the regime and overturn their agenda. Indeed, in the leaked tapes he admits that his “role in determining Iran’s foreign policy was nil”.
Zarif’s hawkish opponents even took their campaign to tarnish his image publicly and a television series broadcast recently on the state-owned channel portrayed him as a powerless and misguided official who makes mistakes and concessions to the enemy.
To further undermine his efforts to build bridges with Iran’s neighbours, the regime’s revolutionary apparatchik resumed their spiteful agenda as soon as Zairf returned to Tehran from his Gulf tour.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly rebuked Zarif for parroting the “words of the enemy” and said his comments shouldn’t be repeated. Zarif immediately offered his apologies for his remarks to the “great people of Iran and Suleimani’s lovers and family.”
The IRGC Intelligence Organisation announced on Saturday that it had “traced and dismantled an anti-revolutionary group in the northwest of the country which has been seeking to instigate various anti-Iran movements since early 2018.”
The agency said monarchists who are loyal to the former Shah are behind the group, named “Haboot Iran” (Fall of Iran), which is “funded and supported by certain Western regimes and the Saudi regime.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly