Iran’s top envoy, Mohammad Javad Zarif, held talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday as part of his East Asian diplomatic push apparently to win Tehran relief from U.S. sanctions.
The Iranian foreign minister had a breakfast meeting with Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah before holding talks with Mahathir, who has criticized the sanctions imposed by Washington last year to target Iran’s energy, banking, metals and shipping industries.
The sanctions came after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, which gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for measures aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining materials that could be used to build nuclear arms.
In May, after Iran announced that it would not comply with parts of the nuclear deal, the U.S. stepped up the sanctions to cover the iron, steel, aluminum and copper industries.
An official at the Prime Minister’s Office said the hour-long meeting between Mahathir and Zarif in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, touched on the U.S. sanctions and issues affecting the Muslim world, among other subjects.
He did not elaborate but Zarif, who had visited China and Japan before stopping in Malaysia, said talks with the Malaysian officials were “good and friendly.”
In Zarif’s meeting with Saifuddin, they discussed broadening bilateral relations and an upcoming trip by Mahathir’s to Iran. Tehran Times reported last month that Mahathir was expected to visit the Middle Eastern country in October.
The foreign ministers also spoke about the latest developments surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, and major issues of the region and the Islamic world, a source in the Foreign Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Total Malaysia-Iran trade was valued at nearly U.S. $600 million in the 10 months to January 2019, according to Iranian media reports in March. The trade balance was in Iran’s favor.
Iran mainly exported gas condensates, non-alloy iron/steel ingots and bitumen to Malaysia during the 10-month period while it imported mainly palm oil, machinery and natural rubber.
This week, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamed Sabu told Reuters that discussions were underway with Iran, among other countries, on the possibility of using palm oil to pay for arms as the Southeast Asia nation seeks to replace old equipment to boost its defense capabilities.
In March, Sigal Mandelker, the U.S. under-secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, visited Malaysia and Singapore to warn against any involvement in schemes to evade sanctions against Iran.
“It’s very important that these countries have important visibility into the different ways the Iranian regime uses to deceive the international community in connection with the shipment of oil,” she said, referring to her talks in Singapore and Malaysia.
Mahathir has accused the United States of making ongoing provocations against Iran, which he said might prompt a real conflict in the Middle East.
“I think as far as I can see, it is America, which is making all the provocation,” Mahathir told CNBC , adding, “First, they withdrew from the [nuclear] treaty, and now they’re sending warships to the [Persian] Gulf, and doing things that will provoke Iran.”
Mahathir made the remarks while attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok
Thursday’s trip was Zarif’s second to Malaysia as foreign minister. Two years ago, he attended an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting here on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
James Chin, a geopolitics expert from the University of Tasmania, said he believed Iran was hoping for Mahathir to “say something to support their fight against the U.S.”
“I don’t think the visit will lead to any breakthrough other than PR for the Iranians to show that there are countries still willing to host them,” he said.
Oh Ei Sun, an expert at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the visit by the Iran delegation was significant for Tehran for two reasons.
“First, Iran is heavily sanctioned by the U.S., and by receiving the Iranian foreign minister, Dr. Mahathir is playing up his old antagonistic posture vis-a-vis the U.S. again, much as he did during his first stint as prime minister, to demonstrate Malaysia’s independence in foreign affairs and solidarity with developing countries as well as Islamic world,” Oh told BenarNews.
“And secondly, Iran is a Shia regime; while Malaysia’s Muslims are mostly Sunni, Shia [are] officially viewed as a deviant cult. So Dr Mahathir is making a clear distinction between foreign policy needs versus domestic religious politics,” Oh added.
There are at least 100,000 Iranian expatriates in Malaysia, according to 2013 figure from the Middle East Institute. The Iranians are mostly Shia Muslim and despite being welcomed in Malaysia, they are not allowed to worship Shia beliefs openly. It is considered deviant because Islam in Malaysia is represented by the Sunni Shafi’i sect of theology.
Zarif: US waging ‘economic terrorism’
During his visit, Zarif also spoke at a forum organized by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), a Malaysian think-tank, on security and other issues affecting the Muslim world.
In the half-hour session, Zarif warned that the Islamic State extremist group remained a threat even after losing its territories in Syria and Iraq.
After the forum, Zarif reiterated that the U.S. would have to observe the 2015 nuclear deal if it wanted to meet Tehran for talks.
“The United States is engaged in an economic war against the Iranian people and it won’t be possible for us to engage with the United States unless they stop imposing a war and engaging in economic terrorism against the Iranian people,” he said.
Earlier this week, American President Donald Trump said he would meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under the right circumstances to end the confrontation over the nuclear deal, which was negotiated under the Obama administration.
Rouhani has said that Iran would not talk to the U.S. until all sanctions were lifted.