By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed.
Speaking at a Baghdad news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Hakim, Zarif said Iran wanted to build balanced relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors and had proposed signing a non-aggression pact with them.
“We will defend against any war efforts against Iran, whether it be an economic war or a military one, and we will face these efforts with strength,” he said.
Strains have increased between Iran and the United States after this month’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf region. Washington, a firm backer of Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, has blamed the attacks on Iran.
Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the United States has sent an aircraft carrier and an extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concern over the risk of conflict in a volatile region.
Iraq stands with Iran and is willing to act as an intermediary between its neighbor and the United States, Hakim said. Baghdad does not believe an “economic blockade” is fruitful, he added in a reference to U.S. sanctions.
“We are saying very clearly and honestly that we oppose the unilateral actions taken by the United States. We stand with the Islamic Republic of Iran in its position,” Hakim said.
The United States and Iran are Iraq’s two main allies.
Meanwhile, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi arrived in Oman and discussed “regional developments” with Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the sultanate’s minister responsible for foreign affairs, Oman News Agency reported.
“Araqchi stressed the importance of peace and security in the Persian Gulf region and warned against the destructive policies of the United States and some of its regional allies,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on its website. “He rejected any direct or indirect talks with America.”
Bin Alawi last week said that his country is trying “with other parties” to calm Iran-U.S. tensions.
Washington has been seeking to tighten sanctions against Iran as relations worsen under U.S. President Donald Trump, who last year pulled out of a nuclear agreement that predecessor Barack Obama had signed with Iran and other world powers in 2015.
In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani floated the idea of holding a referendum over Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian media reported.
A referendum on the program could give Iran’s leaders space to maneuver and a chance to resolve the stand-off with the United States.
Top Iranian leaders have said they are not seeking war with the United States and officials speaking to Reuters from Tehran last week said that despite the sharpened rhetoric with Washington, authorities are trying to avoid open conflict.
“Article 59 of the Constitution (referendum ) is a deadlock breaker … and could be a problem-solver at any junction,” the semi-official news agency ILNA quoted Rouhani as saying late on Saturday.
Rouhani said that, when he was a top nuclear negotiator in 2004, he had proposed holding a referendum on the nuclear issue to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran has held only three referendums since its 1979 Islamic revolution — to approve the setting up of an Islamic Republic and then to approve and amend the constitution.
Washington says it has built up the U.S. military presence in the region, accusing Tehran of threats to U.S. troops and interests. Tehran has described U.S. moves as “psychological warfare” and a “political game”.
Separately, a deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the U.S. military presence in the Middle East was at its “weakest in history” despite talk of a build-up.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai and Dubai newsroom ; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Keith Weir and David Goodman)