TEHRAN – Iran’s foreign ministry Monday for the first time confirmed the Islamic republic is holding talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia, but said it is “too soon” to discuss the results.
Media reports, later confirmed by diplomatic and Iraqi government sources, revealed that Iranian and Saudi officials met in Baghdad in April, their first high-level meeting since Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2016.
“The purpose of the talks was both bilateral and regional,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters.
“But let us wait and see the results of these talks … it might still be too soon to talk about the details of the negotiations,” he added, noting that Iran has “always welcomed such talks at any level and in any shape.”
The neighbouring countries cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protestors attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a revered Shia cleric.
The talks in Baghdad, facilitated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, remained secret until the Financial Times reported that a first meeting was held on April 9.
An Iraqi government official confirmed the talks, while a Western diplomat said he had been “briefed in advance” about the effort to “broker a better relationship and decrease tensions.”
Iran on April 29 welcomed a “change of tone” from the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz towards it after he called for a “good and special relationship” with Tehran.
The regional rivals have backed opposite sides of several regional conflicts, from Syria to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Houthi militias.
Iran backs the Houthis, who are battling the Saudi-led military that intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015.
“De-escalation and (establishing) ties between two great Islamic countries” is to “the benefit of both nations,” Khatibzadeh said Monday.
Iran is waiting for the outcome of the talks, he said.
“We welcome resolving the issues that have existed between the two countries … We will use our best efforts in this regard.”
Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry, last week said that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran were aimed at reducing regional tensions. He said it was too early to judge the outcome and Riyadh wanted to see “verifiable deeds.”
The arrival of President Joe Biden in the United States has altered the diplomatic calculus across the Middle East. Washington aims to restart a nuclear deal with Iran that Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump abandoned, and has called for Saudi Arabia to end a war against Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militias.
Some sources said last month that Tehran had promised to use its influence to halt Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, in return asking Riyadh to support the nuclear talks.
Nuclear talks in Vienna between Tehran and world powers aim to bring Washington and Iran back into full compliance with the nuclear deal. In retaliation for sanctions reimposed since 2018 by Trump, Iran has breached nuclear restrictions under the pact.
Regional analysts warn against expectations of major shifts in regional dynamics.
Saudi Arabia continues to be wary of Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon and even more so of Tehran’s meddling with the Yemen war, even if they are not opposed to the calming of tensions across the Middle East after years of hostilities that have brought the region close to a full-scale conflict.
Saudi Arabian and Iran are expected to hold further discussions this month, according to multiple sources including a Western official familiar with the process.
Riyadh’s endgame seems based on a desire for de-escalation and appeasement. It is seen as tactical and not a strategic game changer.