BAGHDAD (AP) – A first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran signaled a possible de-escalation after years of animosity that often spilled over to neighboring countries and at least one war which is still raging. But few expect quick results.
The talks, hosted by Iraq earlier this month, were confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday by an Iraqi and Western official in Baghdad.
They came as the Biden administration paved the way for the reopening of diplomatic channels in the region. Saudi Arabia recalibrates its regional position after losing a steadfast supporter of President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. Iran, for its part, has calculated that a gradual detente with Riyadh, a long-time US ally, will work in its favor when nuclear negotiations resume with Washington and the world powers.
Saudi Arabia has sought talks with Iran as the kingdom tries to end its multi-year war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In recent months, the Houthis have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom, targeting critical sites and oil infrastructure. Ending this war could be a bargaining chip for Iranians seeking sanctions relief from the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
Holding Saudi-Iranian talks is also a milestone for Iraq, which has ties to both the United States and Iran and has often borne the brunt of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
A senior Iraqi official said that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s recent trips to Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates were essential in bringing Iranian and Saudi interlocutors to the table.
Details of the initial meeting, first reported by the Financial Times, were scarce. The thorny subject of the Yemen war featured prominently, the Iraqi official said. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has unfolded on multiple fronts, primarily in Yemen, as well as Iraq and Lebanon – both home to powerful militias backed by Iran. A breakthrough in the Iran-Saudi talks could have profound repercussions in those countries and across the region.
It’s unclear how much progress, if any, has been made in the talks, but the Western diplomat suggested there would be more meetings. Pro-Iranian Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar said a new round of talks would be held in Baghdad next week after a “very positive” first meeting.
“I understand that these talks will continue and will be negotiated by Baghdad,” the diplomat said. The diplomat and the Iraqi official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret media contacts. They declined to elaborate: saying they wanted to give Iraqi mediation efforts a chance to succeed.
Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia offered official confirmation that the talks had taken place, although Iranian officials hinted at and welcomed them.
The Iranian ambassador to Iraq on Tuesday praised Baghdad’s recent diplomatic efforts, alluding to the Saudi-Iranian talks without mentioning the kingdom.
“It seems that the regional and international situation has created a more positive atmosphere for the resolution of certain problems between Iran and other nations,” Iraj Masjedi told the official IRNA news agency in an interview in Baghdad.
“We would be happy if Iraq could play any role in bringing Iran closer to the nations we have difficulty with.”
When asked whether Iraq’s mediation has been successful, he said the talks “have not produced any clear results and made no remarkable progress.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals. Relations deteriorated dramatically in 2016, when Riyadh dismissed diplomats after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for the kingdom’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. These posts have remained closed since. At the time, Iraq presented itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.
Besides Iraqi lobbying efforts, other key changes in the wake of Biden’s presidency paved the way for talks.
Saudi Arabia seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration which, unlike the Trump administration, has criticized the kingdom’s human rights record, particularly after the 2018 murder of the Saudi dissident writer and columnist from the Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudis also want to test “whether the Iranians have control over the Houthis, if they are willing to exercise it,” said Randa Slim, director of the Track II conflict resolution and dialogue program at the Institute of the Middle East. -East. wishes and interest.
Meanwhile, changes in Iran’s management of Iraq have also played a role. The intelligence arm of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guards dominated Iraq through Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. But Soleimani’s assassination in a 2020 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad saw Iran’s intelligence ministry become more powerful there, the Iraqi official said.
The Guard reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has strong views. The intelligence ministry reports to the relatively moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. While cooperating, the two services are rivals within the Iranian theocracy.
This changing of the guard was essential in bringing the Iranians to the Baghdad table, Iraqi officials said.
“They have a new point of view, a new discourse, they want a stronger Iraq,” an Iraqi official said of the intelligence ministry officials. “The (Guard) calculated differently, they wanted the opposite, a weak Iraq was more beneficial to them.”
Associated Press editors Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.