After a pause of six weeks, regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, held a fifth round of tension-easing talks over the weekend, which Tehran described as “positive” and “progressive”, Anadolu News Agency reports.
The latest round of peace parleys, hosted by the Iraqi government, saw the participation of senior officials from Iran’s top security body and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, according to official sources.
Confirming the resumption of talks, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said “rapid progress” was expected if negotiations move to a higher political level.
Iraqi Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, playing the host, said the two sides reached a 10-point memorandum of understanding in the latest round. He said talks between the two sides revolved around security issues and the protracted war in Yemen.
Tehran and Riyadh are pitted against each other in Yemen, where the seven-year war between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has spawned the worst humanitarian crisis.
Earlier this month, a nationwide truce saw the warring sides halt their offensive military operations, including cross-border attacks.
Sources in Tehran told Anadolu Agency that both sides stressed the need to extend the two-month UN-brokered truce in Yemen and agreed to hold the next round of talks at the diplomatic level, potentially between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
Last week, Nour News, close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), hinted in a report at the likelihood of top diplomats of Iran and Saudi Arabia meeting in the “near future”.
It said the latest round of talks has “raised hopes” for the two countries to “take a step” toward the restoration of diplomatic ties, which broke down in 2016.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, senior Iranian lawmaker, Abolfazl Amouei, said various issues came up for discussion in the fifth round of Iranian-Saudi talks, with Tehran emphasising that the focus should primarily be on bilateral relations between the two countries.
“Ultimately, it can pave the way for the restoration of bilateral relations and the reopening of embassies of the two countries,” said Amouei, a former spokesperson for parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission.
Iran has “long insisted” on addressing bilateral issues through “diplomacy and dialogue,” he added.
Amouei said Iran’s demands since the beginning of the Yemen war have been a “ceasefire, end of the Saudi-led coalition’s bombings and lifting of the siege”.
He added that Tehran welcomes the latest truce in Yemen and sees the resolution of the Yemen crisis as key to regional stability.
Bottlenecks in talks
The high-profile talks between the two estranged neighbours, under way since last April, were suspended by Tehran on 13 March, without specifying any reason.
It came a day after Riyadh said it executed 81 men, convicted of “multiple heinous crimes”, which drew sharp condemnations from different governments, including Iran.
Iran said the executions – the largest in the Kingdom’s recent history – violated “basic human rights and principles and international law”, fuelling fresh tensions.
Pertinently, the severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 2016 was triggered by the execution of a prominent Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, which saw angry protesters in the Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad storming Saudi diplomatic missions.
The suspension of fence-mending talks last month came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi told a diplomatic forum in Turkiye’s Antalya that Baghdad was set to host a fifth round of Tehran-Riyadh talks.
Pertinently, tensions between Tehran and Baghdad in the wake of the 13 March missile strike by Iran’s IRGC on an alleged Israeli facility in Iraq’s Erbil could also have contributed to the brief stalemate, as it coincided with executions in Saudi Arabia and suspension of talks by Iran.
In the previous rounds of talks, the two sides had managed to significantly narrow down their differences to restore diplomatic ties.
Hassan Hanizadeh, a commentator on West Asian affairs, said the talks are “complex” as differences are “deep-rooted”.
He, however, added that the fourth and fifth rounds of talks have seen “real progress,” paving the way for a possible meeting between the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers and exchange of ambassadors.
Hanizadeh believes Riyadh’s willingness to reach a compromise with Tehran could be a “tactical manoeuvre” linked to the “increasing challenges” it is facing in the region and beyond.
“Saudi Arabia is upset as the US has openly distanced itself from Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, under the administration of Joe Biden,” he told Anadolu Agency, apparently referring to reports that Riyadh rejected Washington’s request to increase its oil production in the wake of the Ukraine war.
Hanizadeh said Riyadh “might change tack on Iran” if a Republican president replaces Biden in the 2024 US presidential election.
“That said, the ball is now in Saudi Arabia’s court and it must take practical steps to show that it is genuinely willing to settle differences (with Iran) once and for all,” he added.
Realistic Saudi policy
Before the peace talks were abruptly stalled last month, speculation was rife that the two sides are moving to reopen embassies and working on modalities to send Iranians to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage.
On 17 January, Tehran announced that three diplomats had left for Jeddah to assume charge as official representatives at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) after a six-year hiatus.
Taking up from where they left in March, according to official sources, the two sides this week continued talks on reopening diplomatic missions and agreed to facilitate the pilgrimage of 40,000 Iranians during the upcoming Hajj season.
Amouei said the ongoing negotiations are not centred on old differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia over their regional policies.
“Iran is opposed to Saudi Arabia’s approach toward countries like Yemen, Lebanon or Palestine and Saudi officials know that,” he noted. “But this is not an obstacle for the two sides to have good relations as Muslim neighbours.”
The senior lawmaker further said he does not believe Saudi Arabia’s willingness to hold talks with Tehran has anything to do with speculation that the US, under Biden, has distanced itself from the oil-rich Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, Amouei stressed, has become “more realistic.”
“Unlike media speculation, Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US are still strong. But Riyadh is now more realistic on the region and its neighbours,” he noted.
“They are now more convinced that they should live with Iran as its neighbour and play a role in regional affairs.”