Iran ready for dialogue with Saudis

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GENEVA, July 31, (Agencies): Iran is prepared for dialogue if Saudi Arabia is also ready, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, according to the IRIB news agency.

Tensions have spiked between Iran and Saudi Arabia, arch-rivals for predominance in the Middle East, since Riyadh accused the Islamic Republic of carrying out attacks that damaged six oil tankers in the Gulf, an allegation Tehran has denied. “If Saudi Arabia is ready for dialogue, we are always ready for dialogue with our neighbours,” Zarif said.

“We have never closed the door to dialogue with our neighbours and we will never close the door to dialogue with our neighbours.” The attacks on the oil tankers came as the United States, Saudi Arabia’s major big power ally, toughened sanctions on Iran in a bid to force it into negotiations on stricter limits to its nuclear activity and curbs on its ballistic missile programme.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, called in mid-June on the international community to take a “decisive stand” over the tanker attacks but said the Kingdom did not want a war in the region. Zarif also said Iran could hold similar talks with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally of the Saudis, adding, “If they change their policies it is a very good opportunity for dialogue”.

Iran had maritime security talks on Tuesday with the UAE in an apparent bid to calm tensions in the Gulf, though a Gulf Arab official described the discussions as routine and technical. Officials from the United Arab Emirates and Iran met to discuss maritime security for the first time in six years amid a spike in tensions in the Persian Gulf, both countries confirmed on Wednesday.

The meeting is significant because the UAE and Iran are regional rivals. The UAE downgraded ties with Iran in 2016 and has long pushed for more hawkish US policies toward Tehran, including supporting tough American sanctions.

The UAE and its close ally, Saudi Arabia, have also been at war against Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen since 2015. In recent weeks, though, the UAE has pulled out thousands of its troops from Yemen as it boosts security at home. Recent confrontations in the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil shipping corridor, and fears of a wider conflict have prompted the UAE to call for de-escalation and diplomacy with Iran. Four oil tankers were sabotaged off the UAE coast in May.

The UAE has declined to join Washington in blaming Iran for the attacks, which Tehran denies. Earlier this month, Iran seized an Emirati-based ship it accused of illegally smuggling subsidized Iranian fuel abroad. A day later, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in what some Iranian officials have suggested was retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British authorities in Gibraltar.

An Emirati official said the Iran-UAE meeting focused on issues related to border security and navigation in shared waters, describing the talks as “nothing new” and unrelated to current tensions. The official said there were periodic meetings scheduled between technical teams in both countries and this was the sixth one to take place. The official was not authorized to discuss the talks with reporters and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The state-run IRAN daily reported that a seven-member delegation from Abu Dhabi met with Iranian border and coastguard commanders in Tehran on Tuesday in the first such meeting since 2013. Another daily, Etemad, described the meeting as an effort to boost maritime security cooperation between the two countries.

It reported that the Emirati delegation met Iran’s police border guard commander, Gen Ghasem Rezaei. Despite pursuing rival policies in the region, the UAE and Iran have maintained links. The UAE has kept its embassy in Iran open and Dubai remains a popular destination for Iranian tourists. Emirati citizens with Iranian heritage also maintain links with Iran, which operates a hospital, cultural club and school in Dubai. News of the visit to Iran sparked a regional Twitter hashtag that read in Arabic: “Saudi Arabia discovers the Emirates’ betrayal.”

It drew more than 73,000 tweets, but loyalists of both the Saudi and the UAE government quickly fl ooded the hashtag with videos and messages about the two countries’ historic and fraternal ties. Tensions in the region have soared since the Trump administration withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers last year and imposed crippling sanctions on the country. In recent months, the US has boosted its military presence in the Persian Gulf while Iran has begun openly exceeding limits on its nuclear activities, saying it can no longer fully abide by the 2015 deal unless European signatories to the agreement provide some kind of economic relief.

On Wednesday, Iran dismissed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s offer to visit and address the Iranian people as a “hypocritical gesture.” “You don’t need to come to Iran,” Zarif said on the sidelines of a Cabinet meeting in remarks directed at Pompeo. He suggested Pompeo instead grant visas for Iranian reporters to travel to the US and interview him, accusing him of having rejected their requests.

On Monday, Pompeo had tweeted: “We aren’t afraid of (Zarif) coming to America where he enjoys the right to speak freely.” “Are the facts of the (Khamenei) regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran?” Pompeo said, referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?” The Trump administration has said its policies are aimed at changing Iran’s behavior in the region, not its government. Zarif, a relative moderate within Iran’s clerically overseen political system, was an architect of the nuclear agreement.

The US and Iran cut off all diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the US allows Iranian officials to visit the United Nations headquarters in New York. Germany has not offered to join a US-led naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz as it wants to calm tensions with Iran, a government spokeswoman said on Wednesday, while the defence minister suggested a final decision had not yet been taken. The United States had asked Germany to join France and Britain in a mission to secure shipping through the strait, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil passes, and to “combat Iranian aggression”, the US Embassy in Berlin said on Tuesday.

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