Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei recently sent out a special envoy to ease tensions with wealthy Arab neighbors. He's hoping to end the country's international isolation and dismal economic conditions that contributed to last year's mass protests.
Needing to revive its diplomatic options and financial ties with the Middle East, Iran's embattled regime recently sent a senior security official and former defense minister — instead of members of the diplomatic corps — to talk business with regional powers that have been keeping Iran at arm's length.
After a surprise deal in mid-March to restore diplomatic ties with the Saudi monarchy, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, traveled to the United Arab Emirates, meeting with officials including the federation's head, Sheikh Muhammad bin Zaid Al Nahyan. His meetings are expected to ease the flow of regional money into Iran's economy, which is practically on pause after years of international sanctions. After Abu Dhabi, Shamkhani went to Baghdad.
Shamkhani was effectively acting as an envoy of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and supplanting the country's diplomatic apparatus. This wasn't the first time an Iranian foreign minister has been sidelined in crucial international affairs.
Under President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was kept in the dark about developments concerning Syria. At that time, it was the Revolutionary guards general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in 2020, acting as Khamenei's go-between with rulers like Syria's Bashar al-Asad or Iraqi officials.
Shamkhani and his team even visited the site where Soleimani was struck down by a U.S. drone in 2020.
A regime changes its tune
It seems Khamenei was showing he had lost his patience with the government, a hardline outfit headed by one of his devotees, President Ibrahim Raisi. And it was another sign that power in Iran is now shared between the Leader and senior soldiers, and does not reside in the government, parliament or ministries.
Observers have said Khamenei wanted something done quickly to alleviate economic pressures — which he insists were the source of months of mass protests in 2022. Iran's currency has especially reached historic lows against the U.S. dollar in past months, fueling intolerable shortages and price rises inside Iran.
It appeared the Emirates would ease Iranian access to Emirati dirhams, which acts as an intermediate "hard currency" in Tehran.
An aide to Shamkhani, Muhammad Farzin, observed on March 19 that the trip had immediately boosted dirham transactions in Iran, and would in time help strengthen Iran's currency. It wasn't clear though how much an agreement with the UAE could aid Iranian finances. As a non-signatory to the FATF or international money-laundering pact that regulates transactions, money flows to and from Iran are restricted and difficult. The country is also under sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile activities and rights violations.
Suspicions of corruption and personal enrichment hover around him.
Khamenei's initiative illustrates one of his personal foreign-policy principles, termed "heroic flexibility". In past decades, he did not hesitate to lambast and pour scorn on the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, but today, facing economic asphyxiation, the regime seems at least to have changed its tune. In this, he was aided by Iran's "big-brother" ally, communist China, which wants a firm foothold in an Iran that is minimally functional — if preferably in a state of near-destitution.
Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani during a press conference in Damascus, Syria.
A high-ranking hanging
The trip may however have irked elements in Tehran — like the government. To muffle any complaints that it had degraded the foreign ministry, the Shamkhani tour was given a "security" label. Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian would never complain of course, knowing how the regime works.
As happened under his predecessor Zarif, the ministry said everything had been duly coordinated.
The trip did in fact have security dimensions, notably with Iraq. The sides reportedly agreed to curb the presence in Iraqi Kurdistan of Kurdish groups hostile to the Iranian regime.
Others inside Iran may have wondered why Shamkhani was sent on the Leader's behalf. Suspicions of corruption and personal enrichment hover around him (though he is hardly exceptional in that sense). As defense minister in the late 1990s, under a reformist government, some hardliners think he is not to be trusted.
One of his former deputy-ministers, Alireza Akbari, was hanged early this year after being convicted of spying for Britain. Another of his deputies, the Guards general Alireza Asgari, disappeared in Turkey in 2007, and — if rumors were to be believed — may have become an informant of Western intelligence agencies.