The Islamic Republic foreign minister made a series of trips recently to shore up support among his country's few remaining allies. He returned empty handed.
LONDON — Iran is busy with its diplomatic maneuverings in the Middle East and beyond, but it has yielded little. As Iran's oil minister, Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, put it: "No country is willing to sign a deal with Iran anymore."
The country's most recent overtures were to Moscow, where Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went seeking two things from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. One was to renew a 20-year accord the countries signed in the 1990s under President Mohammad Khatami, set to expire late in February 2021. The second was for Russia to respond to Israeli fighter jets intermittently bombarding Iranian positions in Syria and those of its proxy militias.
The Russians were evasive with the first request, saying they were unprepared to renew any agreement, and repeated their position on Syria, namely that they deplore the attacks but would not act against Israeli jets.
While Zarif was in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin found time to speak by phone to U.S. President Donald Trump and discuss, in particular, the renewal of an arms embargo on Iran that is to expire in mid-October 2020. Russia opposes its extension sine die, but may accept a renewal of four or five years. Certain European countries are planning to present that option to the UN Security Council.
On an earlier trip, to Iraq, Zarif also left empty handed. The Iranian diplomat is often termed Iran's Tariq Aziz, a reference to the Iraqi foreign minister under Saddam Hussein. Aziz was arrested after the dictator's overthrow and died in prison in 2015. He was the only regime official that Hussein, considering him considered able to exert some influence on his European counterparts, would send abroad. And at times he was effective, as is Zarif, who has occasionally managed to "sell" the Islamic Republic's policies to Western states including the United States under President Barack Obama.
In Baghdad, as a presidential adviser told Kayhan London, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told Zarif, in so many words, that it was time for Iran to stop meddling in Iraq's internal affairs and for it to "understand the new situation." Al-Kadhimi reportedly made it clear that the United States was a "suitable" partner for Iraq and the departure of U.S. troops — which is an Iranian demand — is not desirable. He said his only stipulation, with respect to the U.S. military presence, is that Iraqi soil not be used for military action against neighbors, including Iran.
The unnamed Iraqi official told this paper that al-Kadhimi wants to open the Iraqi market to trade with Arab states and did not want Iran to be Iraq's sole gas and power supplier. Iraq is reportedly negotiating with Saudi Arabia for gas supplies and with other countries for electricity.
Before Zarif's visit, al-Kadhimi visited two border districts where in recent months, the Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha'bi militia had been charging money to let goods across the frontier. The Iraqi government has retaken control of the posts.
In a recent meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, al-Kadhimi stressed Iraq's independence and politely ignored Ayatollah Khamenei's request for reprisals against the United States for its targeted killing in Iraq of Qasem Soleimani, the late major general with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of an allied militia.
Khamenei said Iran would not interfere in Iraq's relations with the United States, but expected its "Iraqi friends' to "get to know America and know that America's presence in any country is the source of corruption, damage and destruction." He repeated that Iran wants U.S. troops to leave, as their presence "is a source of insecurity."
Al-Kadhimi insisted, in turn, that Iraq wants cordial relations with its neighbors, but would pursue a foreign policy based on its national interests.
Lebanon and Iraq are starting to push the clerical regime away.
In Lebanon, despite the country's bankruptcy and the influence Iran's proxy militia Hezbollah wields over the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the government has refused an offer to buy Iranian oil and pay for it in Lebanese pounds. Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar stated days before that Lebanon was not planning on buying Iranian oil, in an apparent response to the proposal made by the Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah.
Beirut-based analyst Said Kaywan told Kayhan London that Nasrallah's proposal had one goal, which was to pay the Lebanese pounds directly to Hezbollah as Iran, now under U.S. sanctions , had little money left to pay its militia.
Until recently, Lebanon and Iraq were part of Iran's regional "resistance" against Israel and the West. But now they too are starting to push the clerical regime away. And while Iran's ambassador in Moscow, Kazem Jalali, has recently insisted that Iran would buy Russian arms, Moscow seems less keen on expanding ties with Iran as crucially, these could harm its extensive ties with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
Even China is dragging its feet over a reported 25-year strategic pact with Iran. As a Xinhua agency correspondent told Kayhan London, this too would threaten China's ties with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Currently, he pointed out, China had trade worth over $350 billion with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iraq, roughly equivalent to the total amount in would hypothetically invest — over the course of 25 years — were the treaty to go through.