Iran’s top diplomat praises Iraq efforts as regional broker

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister on Monday praised Baghdad’s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they would lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region.

Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.

Zarif also extended Iran’s condolences after a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients over the weekend killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

Riyadh has been trying to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom to targeting crucial sites and oil infrastructure. Ending that war could be a bargaining chip for the Iranians as they seek sanctions relief from nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We welcome Iraq’s vital role in the region and we hope that day after day that strengthens Iraq’s role for the stability of the region,” Zarif said during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein.

“We thank the Iraqi government for exerting its efforts,” Zarif said, without confirming the Saudi-Iran talks were indeed held in Iraq. “We hope that these efforts will lead to more negotiations and understandings in the region.”

All foreign powers will eventually leave, Zarif added, but “we will stay here and we should base our relations on good neighborhood, no interference and mutual respect.”

Iraq, which has ties with both the U.S. and Iran, has often borne the brunt of Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Hussein said Iraq’s foreign policy is to build “balanced relation with everyone and calm things.”

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have confirmed the talks took place, though Iranian officials have alluded to them and welcomed them.

Iran-Saudi relations worsened considerably in 2016, when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for its execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Those posts have remained closed. At the time, Iraq offered itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.

During his Iraq visit, Zarif is scheduled to meet top officials, visit the holy Shiite city of Najaf and also the Kurdish region in the north.

The visit coincided with a firestorm within Iran set off by a leaked recording of Zarif speaking in an interview to a well known economist. Zarif took no questions from journalists after giving his brief statement in Baghdad and did not address the issue.

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