x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Iran tries to mend fences in region

Iran has launched a charm offensive to ease tensions with key regional powers and US allies amid increasingly tough sanctions and growing isolation over its nuclear programme.

Iran has launched a charm offensive to ease tensions with key regional powers and US allies amid increasingly tough sanctions and growing isolation over its nuclear programme.

The intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, made a rare trip to Saudi Arabia to deny "absurd" and "baseless" US claims that Tehran planned to assassinate the kingdom's ambassador to Washington.

Meanwhile the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, assured Turkey that threats by some Iranian political and military figures to strike at Nato missile bases in Turkey if Iran is attacked by Israel or the US did not represent official policy.

And the foreign undersecretary, Dr Hossain Amirabdullahian, in Abu Dhabi on a tour of Gulf states, said relations with Tehran were excellent. "In many fields the relationship with the UAE has developed, and will continue," he said.

Mr Moslehi, who met Saudi Arabia's crown prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Tuesday, wanted to convince his hosts that the US and Israel are trying to sow discord between Riyadh and Tehran, Iranian officials said.

And Tehran is seeking assurances from Riyadh that it will not pump extra oil to make up for Iran's market share if US and European sanctions affect Iran's petroleum exports.

The Islamic republic knows it cannot confront the West and regional powers at the same time. But Tehran's overtures to its wary neighbours are being blurred by conflicting signals from divisions in Iran's fractious regime.

Mr Salehi told Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency on Wednesday that those who made the "irresponsible and senseless" threats against Nato bases had been warned.

"The official view of the Islamic republic of Iran towards Turkey is based on deep brotherhood and friendship," he said. "Other statements are considered personal views."

Only a day before, however, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, denounced Turkey's model of "secular Islam".

It was a version of western liberal democracy that was unacceptable for countries that are going through an "Islamic awakening", he said.

Iran, which is competing with Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in a changing Arab world, says the Arab uprisings are inspired by its 1979 Islamic revolution.

But it suppressed mass pro-democracy protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president in 2009. And despite its vast oil wealth, Iran is struggling to control double-digit inflation and unemployment while Turkey's economy is booming.

Even though Mr Moslehi's trip to Saudi Arabia was apparently at the behest of Ayatollah Khamenei, it did not stop others in the supreme leader's camp from criticising his attempts to ease strained relations with the kingdom.

Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to the ayatollah and editor of Iran's hardline Kayhan newspaper, wrote on Wednesday: "Unfortunately, it must be said that our diplomatic apparatus unintentionally has given the collapsing Saud family a gift it badly needed."

The Iranian regime has shown similar divisions over the recent storming of the British embassy in Tehran, which has badly soured relations with Europe.

Iran's foreign ministry criticised the brief embassy takeover and expressed regret, while some in Ayatollah Khamenei's camp hailed it as a well-deserved blow to the "colonial old fox".

Tehran and Ankara have mutually beneficial trade relations, and Turkey has opposed Washington's uncompromising stance on Iran's nuclear programme, arguing for a diplomatic solution to the protracted standoff instead of sanctions.

But the Arab Spring is stoking regional tensions. Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, has condemned Syria's brutal crackdown on its opposition while Iran is a staunch supporter of the president Bashar Al Assad's regime, Tehran's only Arab ally.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran of fomenting unrest in Bahrain this year and angered Tehran by sending troops into the emirate to help to crush protests.

Despite its public bravado, Iran appears jittery about the possibility of an attack on its nuclear facilities: Tehran said on Wednesday it may move some of its uranium enrichment work to more secure locations.

Influential voices in Washington, meanwhile, have warned that the US, if it relies solely on compulsion, could stumble into a catastrophic war with Iran.

Zbignew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, warned on Wednesday: "If we slide into a conflict with Iran, in this or that fashion, the consequences for us all will be disastrous, disastrous on a massive scale and also globally at the same time."