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New Iranian Foreign Minister Seeks Better Relations With Arab Neighbors

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, left, speaking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus on Aug. 29, 2021.
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, left, speaking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus on Aug. 29, 2021.

Iran's new top diplomat, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, appears to be focusing his efforts on Arab states in a bid to achieve a thaw in long frozen relations with Tehran's Arab and Gulf neighbors. The effort comes amid the ongoing proxy war in Yemen that involves Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s regional proxies turned up the heat on nemesis Saudi Arabia this week, striking Saudi-controlled Anad Airbase near Aden, Yemen, on Sunday and Abha Airport on Saudi soil in a drone bomb attack early Tuesday. Reports said eight people were injured in Tuesday’s attack, which the Saudis blamed on Iran-backed Houthi rebels. There was no immediate comment from the rebels.

The incidents follow overtures by Abdollahian towards Arab adversaries at a recent regional summit in Baghdad.

Regional cooperation

Abdollahian's first appearance at the top diplomatic gathering since assuming the post of foreign minister last week was marked by an appeal for regional cooperation. Some Arab leaders appeared to resent Abdollahian's presence, along with his attempt to win over his audience by speaking Arabic.

Abdollahian's Iraqi hosts were openly seeking a diplomatic breakthrough by promoting a thaw in relations between Tehran and its top regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Abdollahian also blamed outside players for regional tensions, apparently alluding to the United States and its allies.

Abdollahian said that Iran continues to insist on achieving peace based on dialogue and regional efforts and that Iran hopes these countries come to the realization that the only way to do that is through mutual confidence of the countries in the region, based on strengthening dialogue and avoiding outside interference.

Long-standing positions

It was not clear if Abdollahian succeeded in changing long-standing positions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A Sunday visit to Syria’s capital, Damascus, appeared unlikely to soften regional ill-feelings over Iran's domination of Arab states like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The attacks on Anad Airbase and on Abha Airport also seemed unlikely to improve ties with Riyadh.

Iranian analyst and former diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari tells VOA that Saudi Arabia is being forced to soften its position toward Iran despite the fact that it dislikes the Islamic republic.

"...Yemen has been a total disaster for them and they know that they can't get out of Yemen without Iranian assistance and without some sort of Iranian halt to the kind of support they're providing the Houthis, and at the same time they don't like having to do what they're having to do ..." Khonsari said. "They are doing something and walk a line that they absolutely detest and has been essentially forced upon them."

Off to a fast start

Washington-based Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik tells VOA that he thinks the new Iranian foreign minister is quickly showing what he is made of. Karasik noted that Abdollahian paid his respects to his former mentor, the late General Qassem Soleimani, by praying at the spot outside Baghdad’s airport where a U.S. drone strike killed Soleimani in January of last year. Soleimani was the head of Iran’s elite Quds force.

Karasik also points out that Abdollahian "seemingly broke protocol at the Baghdad summit by not being in his assigned photo spot," before going to Damascus Sunday for a "very warm meeting with (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad."

Karasik said the moves "are being interpreted by some Middle East analysts as being aggressive and perhaps are setting the tone as (Iran's new) president, (Ebrahim) Raisi, sets up his team."

During his visit to Damascus, Abdollahian took time for photos with President Assad and gave a short press conference at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, indicating that Tehran and Damascus are the warmest of allies.

Ties to Soleimani

Both Abdollahian and Iran's national security adviser, Admiral Ali Shamkani, had close ties to Soleimani, so the new government appears to be asserting that there will be no change from Soleimani's regional strategies.

Given Abdollahian's aggressive behavior, notes Karasik, "Western interlocutors are in for a very interesting time" as Iran’s nuclear file gets a fresh look by Tehran's new team. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

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