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Zarif calls for improved ties with Gulf neighbors amid US tensions

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a joint press conference with U.K. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Philip Hammond in Shahrbani Palace. (Hamed Malekpour/Wikimedia)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has reiterated that his country wanted to build balanced relations with its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf and called for the signing of a nonaggression pact with them.

Zarif made the comments on May 26 at a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Ali Alhakim in Baghdad, amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Alhakim said that Baghdad wants to mediate between Iran and the United States while stressing that Iraq stands against “unilateral actions” taken by Washington.

Iraq maintains close ties with both Iran and the United States. Mainly Shi’ite Iran has bitter relations with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Arab states in the Gulf.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have plummeted since the United States a year ago pulled out of a 2015 nuclear accord between world powers and Iran that curbed the country’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.

Since then, Washington has reimposed sanctions, stepped up its rhetoric, and beefed up its military presence in the Middle East, prompting growing concerns of a possible military conflict with Iran.

In Baghdad, Zarif said that his country will be able to “face the war, whether it is economic or military, through the steadfastness and its forces.”

He also urged European backers of the nuclear deal — Britain, France, and Germany – to do more to salvage the agreement. The other signatories are Russia, and China.

Alhakim said that Iraqi officials were “trying to help and to be mediators” between Tehran and Washington.

But the Iraqi foreign minister insisted that Baghdad opposes “the unilateral actions taken by the United States,” saying that it does not believe an “economic blockade” is fruitful.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi discussed the “dangers of a war” during a meeting with Zarif late on May 25, according to his office.

Iraqi President Barham Salih discussed with the Iranian minister “the necessity to prevent war and escalation,” his office said in a statement.

Zarif’s visit to Iraq comes after U.S. President Donald Trump on May 24 announced the deployment of 1,500 additional military personnel to the Middle East, saying that they would play a “mostly protective” role.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later said that the administration planned to sell $8.1 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan to “deter Iranian aggression.”

Earlier this month, the United States sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Middle East, citing “imminent threats” from Iran, prompting growing concerns of a possible military conflict.

Tehran denied the allegations, and announced it was suspending several commitments under the nuclear deal.

Late on May 25, Iranian President Hassan Rohani floated the idea of holding a public referendum over Iran’s nuclear program, local media reported.

Rohani was quoted as saying that he had previously suggested a referendum on the matter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when he was a top nuclear negotiator.