The protracted process of mending troubled regional relations and ending risky rivalries appears to have been given impetus by two key Middle Eastern leaders’ speeches to the UN General Assembly in New York and a meeting on the sidelines of the opening session.
After years of rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, Saudi King Salman expressed the hope that direct talks with Iran will lead to confidence-building measures and dialogue. Iraq launched these talks in April with the aim of ending rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
King Salman also voiced support for ongoing efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, indicating Saudi backing for the Vienna talks on reviving the 2015 six-power agreement limiting Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. This suggests a policy shift as Saudi Arabia had opposed the deal, concerned that once free of US sanctions, Iran would step up intervention in Arab affairs.
Iran's new hardline president Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August, castigated the US for abandoning the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposing sanctions, but expressed willingness to return to the talks, suspended while he assembled his foreign policy team. He has said he considers the talks useful if their objective is lifting sanctions.
Encouraged by Raisi’s pledge to give priority to improving relations with neighbours, the Iraqi UN ambassador organised last Tuesday’s gathering at his New York residence.
Iran's semi-official Mers news agency reported Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met unnamed "foreign ministers and senior representatives" of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, France, the European Union, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council. Amir-Abdollahian told EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that Iran is willing to resume the Vienna talks at an early date.
Iran regards the New York meeting as follow-up to the Baghdad-hosted August 28th regional conference convened to reduce regional tensions. Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan's King Abdullah, Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and French president Emmanuel Macron, who was co-sponsor, attended while Kuwait and the Emirates sent their premiers and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia their foreign ministers.
Participants addressed the war in Yemen, Lebanon's crisis, and how to help Iraq contain the continuing threat of the Islamic State terror group.
Regional leaders have been spurred to reconcile by the US pivot towards Asia, adopted by the Obama administration and maintained by its two successors, although this was partly disrupted by the 2014-19 campaign against Islamic State, also known as Isis.
Planned US troop draw-downs from the current deployment of 44,000 and the recent US removal of Patriot anti-missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan have left rulers feeling exposed after decades of US protection. Their unease has been heightened by the abrupt and messy US pull-out from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban, which has in the past hosted al-Qaeda, the progenitor of the jihadi groups plaguing the region.
La Trove University fellow Tony Walker summed up the situation on theconversation.com, "In the Middle East, a diminished Washington – in which confidence in its ability to stand by its commitments has been shaken if not shattered – will find that its authority will be much questioned."