Iran turns to diplomacy amid high regional tensions



Fri, 11 May 2018 - 10:00 GMT


Fri, 11 May 2018 - 10:00 GMT

Iranians set fire to a US flag during a demonstration in Tehran on May 11, 2018

Iranians set fire to a US flag during a demonstration in Tehran on May 11, 2018

CAIRO - 12 May 2018: Iran's foreign minister will embark on a diplomatic tour to try to salvage the nuclear deal amid high tensions following the US withdrawal and global fears over reports of unprecedented clashes with Israel in Syria.

Mohammad Javad Zarif will leave late Saturday for visits to Beijing, Moscow and Brussels, a spokesman said Friday, holding meetings with all five of the remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran appeared determined not to be drawn into a wider regional conflict with Israel during the sensitive negotiations.

That is despite Israel's claims it struck dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria early on Thursday as part of "Operation House of Cards".

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "throw the Iranians out" of his country.

Israel said the strikes were in response to a missile volley fired from southern Syria by Iran's Quds force, that struck the occupied Golan Heights without causing casualties.

But Iran flatly denied the Israeli version of events, saying Israel's attacks were carried out on false "pretexts".

"The repeated attacks by the Zionist regime on Syrian territory were carried out under pretexts that were invented by themselves and are without foundation," said foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi, without offering further details.

Iran must tread a delicate line as it seeks to show resolve against Trump and the Israeli strikes without alienating the European partners it needs to salvage something from the nuclear deal.

- Iran concessions? -

Zarif will hold high-pressure talks with the other parties to the deal, first in Beijing and Moscow, and then with his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany in Brussels on Tuesday.

All five have condemned Trump's move to walk out of the deal and reimpose crippling sanctions, but European companies in particular will be highly vulnerable to economic pressure from Washington.

France still hopes for a wider settlement that will cover Iran's activities across the Middle East, and warned Tehran on Thursday "against any temptation for regional dominance".

Iran's hardliners are already mobilising against any concessions to Europe, with hundreds protesting in Tehran after Friday prayers, saying it was time to abandon the deal.

"Officials shouldn't trust France and Britain. They will never abandon the US for us," said Poormoslem, a housewife at the rally.

In Jerusalem, around 200 Jews gathered at the Western Wall for prayers "against the enemy".

"We came here to pray to God after the victory against Iran" following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, said Aryeh Stern, a rabbi from Jerusalem.

Southern Syria was quiet but tense, with monitors saying Syrian, Iranian and allied Lebanese forces from Hezbollah were on high alert.

The Israeli raids had prompted concern Iran could activate its powerful ally Hezbollah to retaliate from its positions in southern Lebanon, opening up a deadly new front in the conflict.

Iranian analysts said Israel had struck first on Thursday, and that any retaliation was the work of the Syrian military, not Iran.

"The Israelis want to make this into an Iran-Israel thing, but it isn't. Whatever happens in Syria happens under the command of the Syrians," said analyst Mohammad Marandi, who was part of Iran's negotiation team leading up to the nuclear deal.

- Chief atomic inspector resigns -

The United States has said that despite its withdrawal it wants inspections by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to continue in Iran.

The IAEA said meanwhile that its chief inspector Tero Varjoranta resigned, without giving a reason for his sudden departure.

"The agency's safeguards activities will continue to be carried out in a highly professional manner," a spokesperson for the agency said on Friday.

Analysts say Israel feels it has a green light from Washington to move more aggressively against Iran's presence in Syria, particularly after Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

They also see a rare chance for Iran to hold the moral high ground.

"For the first time, Iran has the chance to show the world they are not the rogue nation they are always presented as, that they negotiated in good faith and keep to their commitments," said Karim Emile Bitar, of the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris.

Russia -- which is alone in having close relations with both Iran and Israel -- has sought to position itself as a mediator to prevent further escalation.

Its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said "all issues should be solved through dialogue" and that Russia had warned Israel to avoid "all actions that could be seen as provocative".

However, one analyst at London's Chatham House, Yossi Mekelberg, said the strikes on Iranian targets "were likely undertaken with tacit Russian approval".

On Friday the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken with Germany's Angela Merkel and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a bid to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive.



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