Iran embarking on diplomatic blitz amid nuke deal fears and Israel tension

Foreign minister Zarif heads to Beijing, Moscow and Brussels for talks; Tehran denies firing rockets at Israel from Syria

In this April 24, 2018, photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by The Associated Press in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew,)
In this April 24, 2018, photo, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is interviewed by The Associated Press in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew,)

TEHRAN, Iran — 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 fears following 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.

Zarif’s travels come after Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria early on Thursday as part of “Operation House of Cards.” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman urged Syrian President Bashar 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, toward Israel.

Iran, however, said 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.

A photo provided by the pro-regime Syrian Central Military Media, shows anti-aircraft fire rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after the Israeli military says Iranian forces launched a rocket barrage against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights, in the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

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 mobilizing against any concessions to Europe, with hundreds protesting in Tehran after Friday prayers, saying it was time to abandon the deal.

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

Lebanese soldiers inspect remains of a Syrian surface-to-air missile that had apparently been fired at Israeli jets during an extensive air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, which landed in the southern Lebanese village of Hebarieh, on May 10, 2018. (Ali Dia/AFP)

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

‘Severe threat’ to stability

The White House put the blame on Iran, condemning its “reckless actions” that it warned pose a “severe threat” to stability in the Middle East.

“Already this week, the IRGC has fired rockets at Israeli citizens, and Iran’s proxies in Yemen have launched a ballistic missile at Riyadh,” it said, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Trump spoke with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, and “both leaders condemned the Iranian regime’s provocative rocket attacks from Syria,” the White House said.

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

This file photo taken on February 10, 2014 shows Tero Varjoranta, IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Deputy Director General for Safeguards, speaking to journalists as he arrives at the Vienna Airport from his trip to Teheran on February 10, 2014. (AFP/Dieter Nagl)

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

“The agency’s safeguard 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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