quotes Saudi-Iran talks could pave the way for regional detente

30 April 2022
Short Url
Updated 30 April 2022

Saudi-Iran talks could pave the way for regional detente

It was an extremely positive round of talks. This is how one Iraqi diplomat described the fifth round of Saudi-Iran talks in Baghdad, which was held under Iraqi auspices last week. Until this latest round, negotiations between the two key regional players had been shrouded in secrecy, with no indication that progress was being made. In this latest round, top security officials from the two countries met face to face.

Saudi Arabia has been especially irate due to the repeated drone and missile attacks by pro-Iran Houthi rebels in Yemen against largely civilian targets in the Kingdom. It had wanted talks with Tehran to cover a wider range of issues than just the resumption of bilateral ties. Riyadh had severed relations with Iran in January 2016 after a mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

According to various media reports, Iran has relented to Saudi pressure to include the war in Yemen in future negotiations. On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that he expected an acceleration in bilateral talks, while Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian last month said in a televised interview that, “If we aim to reach a new stage in the talks with Saudi Arabia, all dimensions and aspects must be taken into consideration.”

Analysts now predict that the coming weeks will see an exchange of diplomatic visits and maybe a resumption of ties at the consular level. Tehran also hopes that Riyadh will allow for a bigger share of Iranians to participate in this year’s Hajj season as a gesture of goodwill. Other sources talked about Saudi Arabia lifting its objection to Iran’s return to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The two archrivals appear to have decided to take confidence-building measures to end years of animosity, triggered by Iran’s controversial regional agenda, which is seen by Riyadh and other Arab countries as a major destabilizing factor.

The two archrivals appear to have decided to take confidence-building measures to end years of animosity.

Osama Al-Sharif

Where the Yemen conflict is concerned, Saudi Arabia recently took constructive steps to initiate a wide-ranging national dialogue that involved all parties in the war-torn country, including the Houthis, but they boycotted the Riyadh dialogue. The Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored intra-Yemen talks took a number of important steps to defuse tensions and open a new chapter toward reaching a political settlement to the civil war. An eight-member presidential council was sworn in last month, replacing the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. While the Houthis refuse to engage in a political process, a truce that the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen agreed to as of April 1 is holding so far.

The truce is seen as a good building block by both Riyadh and Tehran for serious negotiations over resolving the Yemen conflict. The seven-year war had reached a stalemate and turned into a proxy war, which no one except the Houthis wants.

It is no secret that Saudi Arabia had become increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s lack of clear policy on Yemen. The US failed to react quickly and decisively to January’s Houthi escalation that saw it strike targets in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. A revival of the Iran nuclear agreement is unlikely to put constraints on Tehran’s long-range missile program or limit its regional expansion. Once more, America’s Arab allies believe Washington has not done enough to curtail Iran’s belligerent regional agenda. This is perhaps why Saudi Arabia has chosen to engage its rivals directly, with the aim of ending conflicts and setting the stage for a new regional order that does not rely on outside powers.

On the other hand, both sides may have reached the conclusion that confrontation is leading nowhere. For stability in the immediate Gulf region and beyond, the two key regional powers must come to a series of understandings. Regardless of the outcome of the Vienna talks, Iran’s rulers need to recalibrate their regional policy in order to accommodate the legitimate concerns of their neighbors.

Amid sharp geopolitical shifts, Iran faces mounting economic pressures and environmental challenges at home and has to deal with growing discontent among its own citizens. Its proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have drained its resources. Even if the oil sanctions are lifted, it will take the Iranian economy a long time to recover.

For Iraq, which initiated the mediation between the two countries under Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, rapprochement between the two regional powers would go a long way toward calming the deeply polarized political scene in Baghdad. Al-Kadhimi has been able to restore his country’s place in the Arab world without damaging ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia has been backing his efforts to rid Iraq of sectarian tensions.

But the onus is on Iran to respond positively to Riyadh’s overtures by adopting a new stance that underlines its respect of its neighbors’ sovereignty and its commitment to working toward the stability of the region after years of costly and inconclusive conflicts.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010