EghtesadOnline: The Saudi foreign minister said the kingdom is “serious” about talks with Iran, signaling Riyadh’s desire to repair relations between the two regional powers.
A Saudi official added that Riyadh was considering allowing Iran to reopen its consulate in the port city of Jeddah but said the talks had not made sufficient progress to restore full diplomatic relations.
The kingdom has held four rounds of talks with Iran since April, including a first meeting last month with the government of new President Ebrahim Raeisi. The negotiations reflect a tentative de-escalation in the region in the wake of the election of US President Joe Biden and with the economic hardship wrought by the pandemic.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, told the Financial Times that the talks with Iran had been “cordial”, while describing the negotiations as “exploratory”.
“We are serious about the talks,” he said. “For us it’s not that big a shift. We’ve always said we want to find a way to stabilize the region.”
Riyadh and Tehran cut diplomatic ties in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters. The diplomatic mission was attacked after Saudi Arabia executed a senior Shia cleric.
Riyadh is also considering allowing Tehran to reopen its representative office for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the port city. However, the kingdom is not yet ready to reopen a consulate in the Iranian religious city of Mashhad, with a senior official saying the dialogue so far lacked “substance”.
The discussions have been taking place amid European diplomatic efforts to broker a deal on Washington’s return to the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015. Talks have stalled since Raeisi’s election in June.
The Saudi official added Tehran was “focused on signaling”. “Especially to the West, [they are signaling] that ‘look, we have resolved our issues with the Saudis and any lingering things we can work out together so don’t talk to us about regional security,’” he said.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran soared after Riyadh backed former US president Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal with Tehran and impose tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The following year Iran was blamed by US and Saudi officials for orchestrating a sophisticated missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s crude output. Tehran denied the charge.
But Saudi Arabia appeared to have recalibrated its more assertive foreign policy after Biden took office pledging to reassess relations with the kingdom, criticizing the murder of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and freezing some arms sales to Riyadh.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship, Riyadh had aggressively pursued its war with Iranian-allied Houthi fighters in Yemen; became embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Canada; and briefly detained Saad Hariri while he was Lebanon’s prime minister. But Prince Faisal insisted that Riyadh “did not pick fights.” “The leadership has a clear policy that the priority is prosperity, building the country, Vision 2030 [reform plan], and you can’t deliver those things with a region in turmoil,” he said. “So while we will vigorously defend our national security and our sovereignty, we will try to resolve them through diplomacy as well.”
He added that there was a “confluence of events that made it feel like it was the right moment” to talk to Iran.
“We were always willing to talk if they might actually be serious,” he said. “Various factors came into play.”
Diplomats say Riyadh wants Tehran to use its influence over the Houthis in Yemen to help end the war there, with the kingdom keen to exit the conflict after intervening in 2015 to back the ousted Yemeni government.