(MENAFN - Arab Times) PENTAGON NOMINEE ARGUES FOR DIPLOMACY WITH TEHRAN Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, shakes hand with French presidential envoy Emmanuel Bonne, as they pose for photos, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. France sent Bonne to Tehran to urge Iran to return to complying with the terms of the deal "without delay." (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
DUBAI, July 16, (Agencies): Iran's foreign minister has suggested for the first time that the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations with the US, a possible opening for talks as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over the collapsing nuclear deal. Mohammad Javad Zarif offered an initially high price for such negotiations – the halt of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two key US allies in the Gulf. But the fact that he mentioned it at all potentially represents a change in policy.
The country's ballistic missile program remains under control of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The comment comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear program after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago. Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.
However, those tensions also have seen the US send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Mideast. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.
Zarif brought up the ballistic missile offer during an interview with NBC News that aired Monday night as he's in New York for meetings at the United Nations. He mentioned the UAE spending $22 billion and Saudi Arabia spending $67 billion on weapons last year, many of them American-made, while Iran spent only $16 billion in comparison. 'These are American weaponry that is going into our region, making our region ready to explode,' Zarif said. 'So if they want to talk about our missiles, they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region.'
Trump during his time in the White House has pointed to arms sales to the Mideast as important to the American economy, so it remains unclear how he'd react to cutting into those purchases. Zarif's comments marked the first time an Iranian official has mentioned even the possibility of talks on the Iranian missiles. Trump's nominee to run the Pentagon has told his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States should pursue diplomatic solutions to its differences with Iran and avoid war.
Mark Esper, who was nominated by Trump on Monday, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, 'We do not want war with Iran.' He argued for pursuing what he called 'the diplomatic channel.' Esper said the administration plans to brief the Armed Services Committee soon on a plan for working with other countries to more closely monitor commercial shipping in and around the Gulf. He said this plan, which he called 'Operation Sentinel,' is intended to deter Iran from impeding navigation in the Gulf. Esper currently is serving as the Army's top civilian official. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini Monday said that EU foreign ministers had a 'good discussion' to continue work in preserving in full the nuclear deal with Iran.
'We have had unanimity on the need on the one hand to make INSTEX, the instrument we've put in place to have legitimate trade with Iran, faster and more operational, but also to continue working for Iran's return to full compliance with the nuclear deal,' she told a press conference after a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels this evening.
'It (the deal) is not in the best of health but is still alive. Let us not speculate how many months, hours, days, years that it has ahead of it. We are at a very complicated stage. Things are more difficult than ever since the deal was signed four years ago,' she admitted.
Besides the 10 EU member states that are current shareholders of INSTEX other EU member states have shown interest to join it, said Mogherini and added that some non-EU countries are also interested in joining it. Mogherini who has just returned from a visit to Iraq and Kuwait at the weekend said: 'Everybody in the region is aware of the need to have JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) fully in place.' She said whether INSTEX will cover oil trade with Iran is under discussion and noted that there might be a meeting of the joint commission of JCPOA to discuss the recent Iranian breaches of the deal but the venue and time for the meeting have not been fixed as yet. She called on Iran to reverse its decision. The leading candidate to become Britain's next Prime Minister, lawmaker Boris Johnson, said on Monday he would not currently back the United States if it took military action against Iran.
'Were I to be prime minister now, would I be supporting military action against Iran? Then the answer is no,' Johnson told a leadership debate organised by the Sun newspaper and TalkRadio. US-Iranian tensions have escalated since Trump decided last year to abandon the nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curtail its atomic programme in return for relief from economic sanctions crippling its economy.