Javad Zarif was the first Iranian foreign minister to go a-wooing of the Arab emirates of the Persian Gulf. He was determined to wean them from their historic allegiance to Saudi Arabia and turn them against the burgeoning Saudi military alliance with France an Israel.
Kuwait was his first stop. He arrived there Sunday, Dec. 1 and, after visiting Oman and Qatar, announced to everyone’s surprise that he was extending his tour by another day to drop in on Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Emirates, which hosts a large Iranian expatriate community, was the first Gulf nation to welcome the controversial interim nuclear deal Iran signed with six world powers on Nov. 24.
But Zarif did not reach the capital he most wanted to visit, Riyadh.
Saudi royals turned a deaf ear when he angled for an invitation, just as they ignored the suggestion by former Iranian President Hashem Rafsanjani, a close friend of incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, to travel to Riyadh and try his hand at mediating the dispute between the two governments.
Wearing the same diplomatic smiles he used in Geneva, the Iranian foreign minister looked pleased with his welcome in the rest of the Gulf and, speaking from Doha Monday, Dec. 2, said it was high time for Shiites and Sunnis to join hands and bridge the schism in Islam.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources say that Zarif was just putting a good face on the negligible results he netted in all five goals he had set himself in the Gulf tour:
Gulf support to help broaden sanctions relief
1. Roping in the Gulf emirates for endorsing the first-step nuclear accord signed in Geneva. This would help tip the scales against the fierce opposition posed not only by Saudi Arabia but also by Iran’s radicals. (See DEBKA Weekly 613 of Nov. 29: Revolutionary Guards’ Schemes for Wrecking Geneva Deal and Ousting Rouhani and Zarif)
President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif hoped to firmly line up the Gulf Arabs before the detailed technical negotiations start early next year for determining which Iranian nuclear sites are to be frozen under the Geneva accord – when and how.
The two Iranian leaders pin their hopes on Gulf backing as a valuable key for unlocking sanctions.
The broader the Gulf support, they believe, the broader the expected sanctions relief – and the harder it will be for the accord’s critics at home to keep on fighting a deal that promises to substantially alleviate Iran’s economic distress.
2. Achieving Goal 1 will contribute substantially to Goal 2, which is to consummate the second great achievement Iran carried off from Geneva after the recognition of its right to enrich uranium, and that was the Islamic Republic’s rating as a world power. To this end, Tehran needs a major international breakthrough, which could begin in the Arabian Gulf.
Iran wants to come to the table of the technical discussions as well as the negotiations on a comprehensive accord with strong multinational backing. This would give Tehran a stronger hand than a solo appearance.
Rouhani and Zarif are thinking in terms of attending the next negotiating rounds at the head of a broad unified delegation consisting of supportive emirates.
Challenging Saudis as dominant oil power
3. Rouhani and Zarif plan to isolate Saudi Arabia from most of its Gulf Arab neighbors and allies if its royal rulers persist in shunning Tehran and mistrusting its motives.
4. They also intend to heap obstacles in Saudi Arabia’s immediate vicinity to impede its cooperation with France and Israel for political, military and intelligence campaigns to thwart the nuclear accord, pre-empt Iran’s nuclear aspirations and nullify the world power status promised by President Barack Obama.
(See last DEBKA Weekly 613: US Makes Iran Strategic Partner in Six World Zones)
5. They will also act to obstruct an Israeli or joint Israeli-French-Saudi military operation against Iran’s nuclear program.
6. Jumping ahead to the next stage of nuclear diplomacy, the Iranian regime is aiming high, intending to challenge Saudi Arabia as the dominant force of the global crude market, on the assumption that sanctions on its oil industry are soon to be lifted. At the OPEC oil ministers meeting Wednesday, Dec. 4, Iran planned to put in a bid for the post of the 12-nation cartel’s secretary general next year and a bigger share in total OPEC output. Tehran is seeking strong support for these objectives from friendly Gulf oil producers.
Mutual defense pacts and drinking water
So what did the Iranian foreign minister offer the Gulf emirates to win their support?
a) Mutual defense pacts, under which Iran pledges never to attack any of the Gulf emirates and guarantees military, naval and air force assistance for defending their regimes against internal or external dangers to their stability. These mega-rich oil sheikhdoms are increasingly conscious of their vulnerability to danger and were expected to be receptive to offers of a solid buttress.
The Iranian proposal, if accepted, has the potential for breaking up and superseding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) founded by the Saudi royal house to bolster mutual Gulf security.
b) A nuclear cooperation accord between Iran and the Gulf emirates, to provide them with a nuclear umbrella and distance them from a potential Saudi – and possible Egyptian – nuclear shield.
Such accord would also allay regional fears of nuclear accidents – especially at the Bushehr reactor and Arak, after it is finished next year – spreading poisonous radioactive pollution.
c) High technology. Tehran offers to ease the arid Gulf region’s endemic shortage of fresh drinking water with large-scale water desalination plants.
The emirs hemmed and hawed
Zarif’s propositions did not elicit a single clear yes or no.
The Arab rulers and foreign ministers of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Abu Dhabi hemmed and hawed, promised to look into them and send their answers at some later date. First, they demanded an assurance that Iran would stop meddling in their domestic affairs, especially in Bahrain. Their Iranian visitor tried explaining that Tehran’s support for Bahraini Shiites was purely diplomatic, with no military or subversive aspects, a claim that drew sardonic responses.
Most of the Gulf nations have issues with Tehran, but they also find it mutually profitable to set them aside in favor of co-existence and thriving trade ties.
As he hopped from one Gulf capital to the next Dec. 2-3, his colleague at home, Iran’s new intelligence minister Seyed Mahmoud Alavi provided a suitable backdrop by a stream of propaganda.
Monday, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MISIR) “caught” Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the Israel Mossad chief Tamir Pardo “co-conspiring to produce a computer worm more destructive than the Stuxnet malware to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.”
Tuesday, the Saudi prince was again targeted with the claim of “a movement in the US Congress to investigate the role of Saudi Arabia including Prince Bandar Sultan himself for their involvement in the terrorist attack in the United States on September 11, 2001.”
This report referred to “classified pages on the 9/11 Commission that would lead to the Saudi role and to Prince Bandar.”
Only a year ago, then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood before the UN General Assembly and accused the United States of committing 9/11 itself.
Every new leader taking his place in Tehran seems to need a propaganda line he can call his own.