Senior Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks in a bid to restore relations between the two regional rivals, five years after severing diplomatic ties, according to three officials briefed on the talks.
The negotiations, which took place in Baghdad this month, are seen as the first major political talks between the two nations since 2016 and come as Joe Biden seeks to relaunch the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in 2015 and de-escalates regional tensions.
Saudi Arabia is keen to end its war in Yemen against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who have stepped up their attacks on Saudi cities and oil infrastructure. The Houthis have launched dozens of explosive-laden missiles and drones into the kingdom this year.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also taken steps that appear to tend to gain favor with the Biden administration, which has pledged to reassess relations with the kingdom and end the six-year war in Yemen. .
The first round of Saudi-Iranian talks took place in Baghdad on April 9. They included discussions of the Houthi attacks and were positive, one of the officials said.
The official said the Saudi delegation was headed by intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, adding that another round of talks is scheduled for next week.
The process is facilitated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who spoke with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh last month.
“It’s going faster because the United States talks [related to the nuclear deal] go faster and [because of] the Houthi attacks, ”the official said.
A senior Saudi official denied that talks with Iran had taken place. The Iraqi and Iranian governments have not commented.
But a senior Iraqi official and a foreign diplomat confirmed the talks. The Iraqi official added that Baghdad has also facilitated the “channels of communication” between Iran and Egypt, and Iran and Jordan.
“The Prime Minister is keen to play a personal role in making Iraq a bridge between these antagonistic powers in the region,” the official said.
“It is in Iraq’s interest that he can play this role. The more clashes you have in the region, the more they are played out here. . . and these talks have taken place.
Relations between Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, hit a low in January 2016 after the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran was ransacked.
The embassy was torched after Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a senior Shiite cleric. The rivals, who accuse each other of destabilizing the region, then severed diplomatic relations.
The tension escalated further in 2018, after former President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Prince Mohammed was a strong supporter of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. But Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability to attacks was revealed after a missile and drone assault in September 2019, temporarily phased out half of the kingdom’s crude oil production.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but US and Saudi officials blamed Iran.
Washington and Riyadh accuse Iran of passing missiles and drones to the Houthis, a battle-hardened Islamist movement that has controlled Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and northern Yemen since early 2015.
Iraq, home to powerful militant movements backed by Iran, was also caught in regional tension, especially when Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Expeditionary Force, in Baghdad in January 2020.
This has pushed the United States and the Islamic Republic to the brink of war, with Iraq hosting around 2,500 American troops a likely battleground as Baghdad was squeezed between Washington and Tehran.
Iran has forged strong security, political and trade ties with its neighbor since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Saudi-Iranian talks are a sign that the election of Biden, who said he would join the 2015 nuclear deal and lift numerous sanctions against Iran if Tehran fell back into compliance with the deal, has begun to change regional dynamics.
The remaining signatories to the nuclear deal – Iran, the EU, Germany, France, UK, Russia and China – had talks in Vienna to pave the way for the return of the states- United.
In January, Riyadh ended a more than three-year regional embargo against Qatar, imposed in part because of Doha’s ties with Tehran. This decision was widely seen as part of the efforts to gain credibility with the Biden administration.
Riyadh, which opposed the atomic deal, said it would not hamper nuclear talks. But he wants regional powers to be involved in all discussions related to any new deal and insists that Iran’s missile program and regional activities must be addressed.
“Kadhimi has good ties with the Iranian system. The novelty is that Kadhimi is playing this role with Saudi Arabia, ”said another official briefed on the talks. “It’s a good thing Iraq is playing this role, but it’s very early.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose last term ends in August, has previously indicated that he wants to calm hostilities with his Arab rivals.
Additional reports Najmeh Bozorgmehr