Iran‘s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Tehran will defend itself against any military or economic aggression and calls on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear deal his country signed with them.
Speaking in a news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohamed Ali al-Hakim on Sunday, Zarif said his country wanted to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours and that it had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.
Iraq is willing to act as an intermediary between its neighbour and the United States, al-Hakim said, adding that Baghdad does not believe an “economic blockade” is fruitful – a reference to US sanctions.
“We are saying very clearly and honestly that we oppose the unilateral actions taken by the United States. We stand with the Islamic Republic of Iran in its position,” al-Hakim said.
“We are trying to help and to be mediators,” said al-Hakim, adding that Baghdad “will work to reach a satisfactory solution” while stressing that Iraq stands against unilateral steps taken by Washington.
The mediation offer echoed one made on Saturday by Mohamad al-Halbousi, the Iraqi parliament speaker. Hakim also expressed concern for Iran’s spiralling economy.
The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side.
Mohamed Ali al-Hakim, Iraqi foreign minister
Iranians make up the bulk of millions of Shia from around the world who come to Iraq every year to visit its many Shia shrines and holy places and their purchasing power has slumped after Trump reimposed the sanctions.
“The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side,” al-Hakim said.
Speaking about the rising tensions with the US, Zarif said Iran would be able to “face the war, whether it is economic or military through the steadfastness and its forces”.
Iraqi President Barham Salih discussed with Zarif “the need to prevent all war or escalation,” his office said.
US presence at its ‘weakest’
On Saturday, Zarif called the deployment of extra US troops to the region “extremely dangerous and a threat to international peace and security”.
It follows a US decision in early May to send an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers in a show of force against what Washington’s leaders said was an imminent Iranian plan to attack US assets.
No evidence was given on the alleged plan.
A senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said that the US military presence in the Middle East was at its “weakest in history”.
“The Americans have been present in the region since 1833 and they are now at their weakest in history in West Asia,” said Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, a deputy guards commander, according to semi-official news agency Fars.
Washington says the latest reinforcements were in response to a “campaign” of recent attacks including a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, explosive devices that damaged four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, and drone attacks by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline.
Iran has denied any involvement.
The US this month ended the last exemptions it had granted from sweeping unilateral sanctions it re-imposed on Iran after abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested the Islamic republic could hold a referendum over its nuclear programme.
The official IRNA news agency said Rouhani, who was last week publicly chastised by the country’s supreme leader, made the suggestion in a meeting with editors of major Iranian news outlets on Saturday evening.
Rouhani said he had previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when Rouhani was a senior nuclear negotiator for Iran.
At the time, Khamenei approved of the idea and though there was no referendum, such a vote “can be a solution at any time,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
A referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 nuclear deal.
Earlier last week, Iran said it quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity though Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what is needed for an atomic weapon.
Rouhani’s remarks could also be seen as a defence of his stance following the rare public chastising by the supreme leader.
Khamenei last week named Rouhani and Zarif – relative moderates within Iran’s Shia theocracy who had struck the nuclear deal – as failing to implement his orders over the accord, saying it had “numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses” that could damage Iran.
Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran, did not immediately respond to Rouhani’s proposal of a referendum.
The Islamic republic has seen only three referendums since it was established in 1979 – one on regime change from monarchy to Islamic republic, and two on its constitution and its amendments.