DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A flurry of diplomatic visits and meetings crisscrossing the Persian Gulf have driven urgent efforts in recent days to defuse the possibility of all-out war after the U.S. killed Iran’s top military commander.
Global leaders and top diplomats are repeating the mantra of “de-escalation” and “dialogue,” yet none have publicly laid out a path to achieving either.
The United States and Iran have said they do not want war, but fears have grown that the crisis could spin out of Tehran’s or Washington’s control. Tensions have careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad on Jan. 3 was seen as a major provocation.
The killing alarmed even Washington’s allies in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia dispatching Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington right after with a message to de-escalate.
Iran retaliated days later, firing a barrage of missiles at two military bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed. No casualties were reported in that attack and Iranian commanders say their intention was not to kill. Amid the confusion and fears of U.S. retaliation, Iran acknowledged it had unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet after takeoff from the Iranian capital, Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.
In Iran on Sunday, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said that it was “a very sensitive time for the region.”
“The only solution to these crises is first de-escalation from all, and dialogue is the only solution to these crises,” he said during a joint press appearance with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani said “the escalation of tensions in the region are not beneficial to the region and the world.”
The emir’s visit to Iran was one of many diplomatic forays aimed at calming regional tensions and keeping back channels open.
Iran sent its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to Oman on Sunday to be among the first to offer condolences in person to the new ruler of Oman. The sultanate, like Qatar, is a close U.S. ally, but also maintains good relations with Iran. Oman helped facilitate talks between the U.S. and Iran under President Barack Obama.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Saudi Arabia on Sunday as part of a tour of oil-producing Gulf Arab states. Stability in the Persian Gulf is a national security priority for Japan, which imports nearly 90% of its oil from the Middle East. Much of that is shipped from Arab Gulf states through the narrow Straight of Hormuz, which Iran partly controls.
Abe next visited the United Arab Emirates on Monday for a meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, before traveling to Oman Tuesday to meet Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.
Japanese energy supplies were a target of rising tensions in June when two cargo ships were hit off the Gulf of Oman. The attacks took place when Abe was in Iran seeking to backstep American tensions.
Japanese media reported that Abe was told by Saudi leaders there on Sunday that they fully support Tokyo’s plans to deploy naval forces, a destroyer and two patrol airplanes off the coasts of Yemen and Oman to help protect Japanese energy supplies.
“A military conflict in the Middle East would have a huge impact on global peace and stability,” Abe was quoted in Japan’s The Mainichi daily as saying to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “I’d like to ask all countries concerned to respond (to the situation) in a restrained manner.”
Meanwhile, Iran hosted Syrian Prime Minster Imad Khamis on Monday. A day earlier Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Qureshi was in Iran where he emphasized the importance of “maximum restraint and immediate steps for de-escalation by all sides,” according to a statement by his office. War is in nobody’s interest and issues must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, the statement added.
He is headed next to Saudi Arabia for meetings Monday. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has before attempted the difficult task of mediating between Iran and the U.S., as well as between archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS “Face the Nation” that the U.S. is willing to meet with Iran’s leadership without preconditions. Iranian officials, however, say no meetings can take place without U.S. economic sanctions being lifted first.
There are rumblings that renewed domestic pressured on Iran could force it to negotiate with Washington. Thousands of Iranians are taking part in angry streets protests over the downing of the jetliner whose majority of passengers were Iranian nationals. Iranian officials admitted responsibility for shooting down the jet after initial denials by leaders.
The demonstrations are demanding accountability and change in Iran. Deadly protests in November already shook the country, triggered by price hikes and economic woes from U.S. sanctions.
In a tweet about the protests and whether they might pressure Iran’s leadership to change its tone, Trump wrote: “Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and “don’t kill your protesters.””
In Tehran, government spokesman Ali Rabiei gave a glimpse into how Iran’s leadership views any possible dialogue with Trump. Speaking to reporters on Monday, he said if Iran opens dialogue with the United States, it would signal that pressure on Iran works and could lead to more pressure.
“They give us messages, such as they have nothing to do with others and want to talk to us directly. We have no trust in them,” he said, describing Trump as “untrustworthy.”
“He thinks that by putting ordinary people under pressure, he can achieve what he wants and can force us to retreat,” Rabiei said.