Zarif Touring the Middle East to Promote Dialogue in a Time of Conflict

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D., Senior Researcher; IRI Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research (CSR)

Four years of incessant conflict over spheres of influence has brought the Middle East to a multidimensional deadlock. The conflicts have apparently soared so high that transition through the current situation seems to be impossible without offering a victim. Saudi Arabia insists that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Yemen’s Ansarullah fighters must be the victims. Iran, however, has taken a different position on how to make the transition through the existing situation. First of all, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s understanding of the current situation is based on this pivotal point that victimizing one side of the crisis will not help resolve the crisis, but will simply postpone its resolution. On the basis of this viewpoint, he has been continuously putting emphasis on the need to discard zero-sum solutions and change viewpoints in order to make way for a win-win game. From this viewpoint, security of a single regional country cannot be met separate from security of other countries in the Middle East. Secondly, after getting rid of the most important issue in history of Iran's diplomacy – that is, nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group of countries and achievement of the Vienna agreement – the Islamic Republic of Iran has now focused its attention on the resolution of existing problems with neighboring states. In other words, priority of Iran's foreign policy has shifted from the nuclear issue to regional issues.

Under these circumstances, Zarif has dedicated two rounds of his foreign trips to touring regional Arab countries during the past month. In the first round, Zarif visited a number of Persian Gulf littoral states, including Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq. In the second round of his regional tour, Zarif and his accompanying delegation went to Lebanon and Syria. Declaring support for Iran's allies while opening the door to dialogue and interaction with rival countries were two main axes of diverse messages that Zarif conveyed to those countries. Of course, the hidden message of these trips was that Iran is now giving special priority to dialogue and interaction with rival countries in the region. Zarif’s negotiations and meetings with officials in regional countries indicate a major change in Iran's viewpoint about the possibility of interaction after a period of tension that followed the Arab Spring developments. It is obvious that Iran and its allies constitute one side of an equation, which can play a key role in creating regional balance.

Iran's top diplomat believes that today, the Middle East is comprised of various actors, which can be divided into two general groups. The first group consists of those countries that seek to change the regional power structure in order o boost their own share of the regional balance. Saudi Arabia and its allies within the framework of the anti-ISIS coalition are members of this group. On the opposite, there are other actors that seek to preserve the status quo as a solution to prevention of instability and extraterritorial threats. Iran and countries that are generally known as the axis of resistance are members of this second group. In addition to these two regional groups, it seems that on an international level, the United States and the group of world powers seek to stabilize the status quo through political mechanisms.

In this way, Iran's foreign minister, who has succeeded to verify the United States and its allies among the international community through the tough test of talks over Iran's nuclear program, is now trying to shift the weight of negotiations from an international to a regional level. From his viewpoint, developments in the region are moving in a direction to put firm control on the destructive potential of countries like Saudi Arabia and, therefore, Iran needs to maintain its initiative at a regional level. This is why Iran has decided to launch strategic dialogue with the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab countries. In other words, the general course of developments is moving in a direction that if regional countries fail to achieve strategic agreements on the management of regional crises, they will gradually lose the initiative as a result of which regional countries would have to follow suit with decisions that would be made for the Middle East at an international level.

Another point is that the time does not seem to be necessarily against Iran. The issue of Syria as well as the issue of Yemen are the result of wars that cannot be terminated in short term and even in medium term. Therefore, it seems that Zarif is trying to do away with the existing differences between Iran and Arab countries over major areas of tension in the Middle East from a position of power and based on a win-win approach. On the other hand, it seems that Iran's new approach is based on this reality that emphasis on a military solution for regional crises, especially now that the most important of those crises has hit a deadlock, will be gradually replaced with more realism. This means that the way is now paved for presentation of moderate and political solutions. Therefore, Iran is pioneering a path that could finally end in the restoration of normalcy to Iran-Arab relations through strategic talks.

Last but not least, an Iran that is pioneering political solutions for regional crises is still putting emphasis on the main aspects of its regional policy as well. The latest meeting between Zarif and the leaders of resistance in Lebanon can be understood within this framework. The main point in the diplomatic discourse pursued by Iran is that reaching an agreement with international community, on the one hand, and starting strategic talks with Arab countries, on the other hand, should by no means be considered as a sign of Iran's decision to go back on the policy of supporting its allies in the resistance axis. Of course, these two aspects of Iran's diplomatic discourse will naturally come to loggerheads at a certain point and this will reduce Iran's potential for diplomatic maneuvering. However, this is another challenge that Zarif is apparently ready to embrace.

Key Words: Iran, Middle East, Dialogue, Conflict, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's Diplomatic Discourse, Iran-Arab Relations, Strategic Talks, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Regional Balance, Nuclear Agreement, Ahmadian

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*Photo Credit: IRNA, Press TV

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