Iran-Saudi talks could change Middle East dynamics for the better
Reported meeting points to desire for better relations that could help rescue nuclear deal
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman: Restoration of relations would be a gain for both parties but could mark a major shift for the Saudis and their allies. Photograph: Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Baghdad-brokered talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations could defuse regional rivalries and change the politico-military dynamics of the region for the better.
At the invitation of Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, high-level Iranians and Saudis are reported to have met in Baghdad on April 9th.
The Iranian team was headed by national security council secretary Gen Ali Shamkhani and the Saudi delegation by intelligence chief Gene Khaled bin Ali al-Humaidan.
Although both sides dismissed the initial Financial Times report on the meeting, fresh details mean those denials are not convincing. Backroom technical talks are said to be continuing.
The encounter coincided with the opening in Vienna of efforts to reinstate the 2015 agreement to reduce Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. This involves securing compliance by the US, which withdrew in 2018, and Iran, which has responded by breaching limits on uranium enrichment set by the deal.
De-escalation of tensions between an Iran eager for sanctions relief and the deal’s Saudi critics could contribute to a successful outcome to the EU’s drive to rescue the faltering accord.
Relations ruptured in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed Saudi missions in Iran in response to Riyadh’s execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Tensions have escalated, deepening the 1,389-year-old Shia-Sunni divide and sharpening the current competition for regional influence.
Restoration of relations would be a gain for both parties but could mark a major shift for the Saudis and their allies, who have blamed regional destabilisation on Tehran’s meddling in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Riyadh itself has played malign roles by backing jihadis in Syria, interfering in Lebanon, and waging war in Yemen.
Change is being driven by several factors. Saudi efforts to isolate Iran have failed. It has close relations with Russia, China, Turkey, half a dozen Arab countries, and the Yemeni Houthi rebels who are winning the six-year war waged by the Saudis.
After four years of unconditional support from the Trump White House, the Saudis feel slighted by the Biden administration, which has rejected Saudi and Gulf input in the Vienna talks. If the nuclear accord is reinstated Iran’s economy will receive a boost and it will be in a much stronger position than now.
Irani-Saudi reconciliation would be a boon for Iraq, which suffers from Shia-Sunni and Iran-US rivalries, as well as for the Emirates, which have traditionally depended on trade with Iran but have been forced to curb their commerce by Saudi and sanctions pressure.