Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi defended the role of resistance groups active across the Middle East, even as Tehran pressed forward with a concerted improvement of relations with neighboring nations that have opposed the activities of such non-state actors.
Responding to Newsweek‘s question regarding the fate of Tehran’s relationship with such militias, Raisi asserted that “resistance groups have been formed in order to safeguard their countries.”
“Thus far, the Lebanese Hezbollah has played a vital role in defending the territorial integrity of Lebanon, a fundamental role in the defense of Lebanon,” Raisi said. “The groups of resistance throughout the region in order to defend their countries such as the Hashed Al-Shaabi resistance group in Iraq that works in close cooperation with Iraqi security and defense forces in defending the territory of their homeland.”
“In Syria, there are different groups that safeguard their country,” he added. “It is the right of the youth of those countries to have a defensive capacity.”
This endeavor, Raisi said, is not “anything that should be a source of preoccupation” for others.
Tehran has long fostered partnerships with a so-called “Axis of Resistance” constituting various groups from a multitude of nations including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. Such militias, most of which are Shiite Muslim, have proven key in battling the hardcore Sunni Islamic State militant group (ISIS), but many have also challenged the presence of the U.S. in the Middle East and have been accused by Washington and its partners, such as Saudi Arabia, of sewing sectarian unrest across the region.
As Riyadh embarked on a rapprochement with Tehran via a China-brokered deal in March and sought to bring an end to the ongoing civil war in neighboring Yemen, however, cautious hopes have emerged of a return to stability and burgeoning cooperation between Iran and its Arab rivals.
During Wednesday’s remarks, Raisi said his administration’s “aim is to have contacts and friendly relations with all neighboring countries, all regional countries, all friendly countries, any country throughout the world that bases this relationship on cooperative and collaborative efforts.”
Raisi’s latest comments echoed points made during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, as well as during a closed-door meeting Monday with media figures at the same location in New York. Responding to Newsweek‘s question regarding Tehran’s regional ties during that gathering, Raisi vowed closer cooperation and blamed Washington for any obstacles in this endeavor.
“Our policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been in having good neighborly relations with all countries in the region, tying to strength,” Raisi said at the time.
“If there has been weakness,” he added, “it is because of meddling by the United States and other countries. If the meddling stops, this relationship will improve.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has publicly welcomed the Iran-Saudi detente but has continued to criticize the Islamic Republic on issues of security and human rights. And while the effort to revive a 2015 nuclear deal remains officially stalled, a prisoner swap deal reached last week between Tehran and Washington that also allowed for the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets marked a rare agreement for the two nations.
Responding to Newsweek‘s question during a press call earlier Wednesday on whether the White House has witnessed any decline in Iranian activities considered to be malign by the U.S., National Security Strategic Communications Director John Kirby said it has been a “mixed bag.”
Kirby explained that U.S. officials “have definitely seen a significant decrease in attacks on our troops in Iraq and Syria,” but he argued this could mostly be attributed to “the strong response” demonstrated by the U.S. in striking targets allegedly tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria after militias attacked U.S. troops in the country in March.
“On the other hand, they’re continuing to harass shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. That has not diminished,” Kirby said. “They continue to support Russia’s war in Ukraine by providing drones and now working with Russia on a manufacturing facility that’s there in Russia.”
“They continue to try to improve their already improving ballistic missile programs, and they continue to support terrorist networks,” he added. “So, in the main way, [they] continue their destabilizing behaviors.”
Kirby also sought to emphasize that the recent prisoner swap was simply “an effort to get Americans home” and was “not tied to any other Iranian behavior,” or was it “a runway to some sort of rapprochement with Iran.”
And while Kirby said it would be a “good thing” if reports of Iran slowing down its centrifuge program were true and that the U.S. still preferred a “diplomatic path” toward resolving the nuclear issue, he said talks toward that end were “moribund.”
“They weren’t negotiating in good faith,” Kirby said, “and we’ve seen no indication that they’re prepared to do that anytime in the near future.”
Israel, a close ally of the U.S. and a top foe of Iran, has been especially doubtful of any change in Iranian behavior. Also on Wednesday, Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss what the U.S. leader described as “hard issues,” including the perceived threat from Iran as well as Israel’s own bid to establish diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, an effort apparently hindered by ongoing criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians.
“During the meeting, the two leaders reiterated their commitment to ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, as well as ongoing close cooperation between Israel and the United States to counter all threats posed by Iran and its proxies,” according to a White House readout.
“They also consulted on progress toward establishing a more integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Middle East region,” the readout added, “including through efforts to deepen and expand normalization with countries in the region.”
Netanyahu, for his part, expressed appreciation for Biden’s “continuous commitment to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”
The Israeli premier also conveyed his confidence that “we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
This is a developing news story and more information will be added as it becomes available.