ISLAMABAD (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister was in Pakistan on Friday, a critically timed visit amid a simmering crisis between Tehran and Washington and before next week’s emergency Arab League meeting called by Saudi Arabia over regional tensions.
The purpose of the visit by Mohammad Javad Zarif, who held talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and with Prime Minister Imran Khan, was not made public. But there has been speculation that Iran is looking to Islamabad and its close relationship with Riyadh to help de-escalate the situation.
Before Zarif arrived, Pakistan’s foreign ministry called on “all sides to show restraint, as any miscalculated move, can transmute into a large-scale conflict.”
Zarif has been criticized by name this week by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who named him and President Hassan Rouhani as failing to implement the leader’s orders over Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Khamenei says the deal had “numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses” that could damage Iran.
Tensions have ratcheted up recently in the Mideast as the White House this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over an alleged, still-unexplained threat it perceived from Iran.
The crisis takes root in the steady unraveling of the nuclear deal intended to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The accord promised economic incentives in exchange for restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activities.
The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the deal last year, and subsequently reimposed and escalated U.S. sanctions on Tehran — sending Iran’s economy into freefall.
Khamenei’s criticism of Zarif signaled a hard-line tilt in how the Islamic Republic will react to President Trump’s maximalist pressure campaign.
Iran declared this month that the remaining signatories to the deal — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — have two months to develop a plan to shield Iran from U.S. sanctions.
On Monday, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium, making it likely that Tehran will soon exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord, which would escalate the situation further.
Several incidents have added to the crisis.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia said Yemen’s Iran-aligned rebels again targeted an airport near its southern border with a bomb-carrying drone. The Saudi military said it intercepted the drone, while the rebel Houthis said it struck a Patriot missile battery at the airport. The Houthis have claimed three times in recent days to have targeted the airport, which also hosts a military base. It comes after the Houthis last week targeted a Saudi oil pipeline in a coordinated drone attack.
Pakistan was quick to condemn the attacks and promised Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally, its full support. The kingdom this week announced a $3.2 billion deferred oil and gas payment package for energy-strapped Islamabad.
With neighboring Iran, Pakistan walks a fine line and their relationship is sometimes prickly. Islamabad has little leverage with Washington, though relations between the two have improved since Pakistan expressed readiness to help with talks between the Afghan Taliban and Washington.
Meanwhile, Oman’s Foreign Ministry said it was working to “ease the tensions” between Iran and the United States.
The ministry in a series of tweets Friday morning attributed the comments to Yusuf bin Alawi, the sultanate’s minister of state for foreign affairs, and cited an interview in Asharq Al-Wasat, the London-based newspaper owned by a Saudi media group long associated with the Al Saud royal family.
In the interview, bin Alawi warns that war “could harm the entire world if it breaks out.” He does not confirm any current Omani mediation but says both the United States and Iran realize the gravity of the situation.
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said spoke last week by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Oman, a nation on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been an interlocutor of the West with Iran. The United States held secret talks in Oman with the Iranians that gave birth to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.