DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – With the ink barely dry on a nuclear deal that paves the way for warmer relations with the West, Iran’s new leadership is making a push to patch up tensions with U.S. allies closer to home too.
Tehran’s top diplomat arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday for talks with the nation’s leader that touched on last month’s nuclear pact, as well as regional security and bilateral relations. It was the sort of courtesy call Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is growing accustomed to making.
Since the start of the week, the diplomat has visited four of the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, who have long been wary of Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been left out of his Gulf tour so far, but they are significant omissions _ Saudi Arabia is the region’s powerhouse, while Sunni-ruled Bahrain faces a three-year-old uprising by majority Shiites.
The interim deal reached in Geneva last month over its nuclear ambitions gives the Islamic Republic’s new government, led by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, an opening to reset its relationship with at least most of the Gulf states.
Under the pact, Iran agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for some relief from Western sanctions that are hobbling its economy.
“Iran is taking advantage of the interim agreement to make inroads into the GCC to resolve outstanding issues and each GCC state, excluding Saudi Arabia,” said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
Iran has expressed an interest in working more closely with Saudi Arabia too, but there are few signs that the kingdom’s rulers are in a mood to talk for now. It, like Israel, remains deeply suspicious of Iran’s intentions.
The kingdom sees a stronger Iran as a threat to its own influence in the region, and it and other Sunni-ruled Gulf nations are important backers of the Syrian rebels fighting to topple the Iran-allied government of Bashar Assad in Syria. Riyadh also has accused Iran of backing Shiite uprisings in neighboring Yemen and Bahrain.
That has not stopped Tehran from trying to make inroads with Saudi Arabia’s smaller Gulf neighbors.
Zarif’s meeting with the Emirati president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, took place in a palace in the low-key desert oasis city of Al Ain, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) inland from the rapidly developing federal capital, Abu Dhabi. He was also expected to visit the bustling commercial hub of Dubai before departing.
The Emirati leader reiterated his country’s support for the nuclear deal and said his nation looks forward to enhancing regional stability and security, according to an account of their meeting carried by the official WAM news agency. He also said he hoped for more cooperation between the two OPEC member states.
Zarif extended an invitation for Khalifa to visit Iran, which the state news agency said “His Highness thankfully accepted,” and expressed Iran’s desire to strengthen its ties with the Gulf countries.
The two OPEC nations have longstanding trade ties but differ over several issues, including Tehran’s control over three Gulf islands claimed by both countries.
The UAE nonetheless has shown a willingness to engage with the new Iranian leadership. It was one of the first countries in the region to welcome last month’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and dispatched its foreign minister to Tehran last week.
The West and its allies fear that Iran’s program could be used to build an atomic bomb. Iran says it is only for peaceful purposes, such as producing electricity, and for scientific and medical research.
The Gulf states have welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal. Even Saudi Arabia, which traditionally sets the political tone for the rest of the Gulf, was cautiously in favor of the pact.
The UAE has embarked on its own nuclear program, last year becoming the first country in more than two and a half decades to begin building its maiden atomic power plant. It, however, has agreed with the U.S. not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel for plutonium, which can be used in nuclear bombs.
Earlier this week, Zarif traveled to Kuwait and Qatar, and met with the countries’ ruling emirs.
He also stopped in Oman, which shares control of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf with Iran. It has long maintained friendly ties with both Tehran and the West, and was the site of some of the secret talks between Iranian and American representatives that preceded last month’s nuclear deal in Geneva.
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