Saudi-Iranian dialogue

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 26 Apr 2022

The Iranian media has hailed the last round of Baghdad-mediated talks with Riyadh as positive, writes Ahmed Mustafa. But the Saudi media is indifferent. Will the Iraqis manage to bring the two regional powers closer?

 

No official statements have been made about talks between Saudi and Iranian officials in Bagdad, but the semi-official Iranian media is upbeat about the “positive” atmosphere in which they were held. Some media reports said Omani officials were present. An Iraqi government source could not confirm that though he conceded that the talks were “a success”.

Four rounds of talks have been held in Iraq, starting last year almost simultaneously with the Vienna talks between Iran and world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. But the talks were stalled for months. This fifth round was supposed to be held last month but Iran postponed it. Though some reports spoke of a secret Saudi-Iranian meeting in Muscat, Iraq seems to be the best choice for both sides.

Iraqi political researcher Khaled Al-Yaakoubi told Al-Ahram Weekly that “both sides were keen on the talks with a strong desire to reconcile”. He also reiterated the significance of the setting: “They chose Iraq for its good relations with both parties. There is also a growing trust in Iraqi mediation. Don’t forget that Iraq is a main setting for the proxy struggle between the two regional powers.”

An Iranian media outlet known to be close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) reported that the talks might lead to a breakthrough in Saudi-Iranian relations. Nour news tweeted, “The fifth round of talks between the high representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia were held in Baghdad. The positive atmosphere of the recent meeting has raised hopes for the two countries to take a step towards the resumption of relations … It is expected that a joint meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries will be held in the near future.” The tweet was accompanied by a picture showing Saeed Iravani, deputy secretary for the SNSC, and Khaled bin Ali Al-Humaidan, Saudi Arabia’s director general of General Intelligence, with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi between them.

Since talks began the main focus has been security, according to different sources. But some Iranian media reports mentioned that officials from the Iranian Foreign Ministry took part in the last round. Al-Yaakoubi was not sure “if there will be a high-level meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries. But it is highly expected that diplomatic representation in Tehran and Riyadh could be resumed in a better way than before.”

The Saudi media was not as upbeat about the Baghdad meeting, however. Sources in Riyadh downplayed the high hopes of resuming diplomatic relations with Iran very soon. Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames is “not optimistic about the results of the talks” as the Iranian media portrays it. He told Al-Ahram Weekly, “It is not the will to restore or normalise relations that is at issue, it is Iran’s intentions that are the problem. It is a repeated pattern. They create problems then seek reconciliation, and so on. The problem with the Iranians is that they have a ‘doctrine’ on which they calibrate politics. They have a sectarian vision of Islamist polarisation. They see political reconciliation as a ‘battle for influence’.  Even if they normalised relations, it would be just transitional as they would resume their interference in internal affairs of other countries in the region. That is why there is little optimism about restoring full relations.”

Some Western analysts argue that the reason for hope is an American condition in the Vienna talks that Washington will not rejoin the nuclear deal unless Iran mends its relations with its Arab Gulf neighbours. But the US official statements stops short of making this a condition though placating America’s Gulf allies is repeatedly mentioned. Another reason for the apparent warmth between Tehran and Riyadh is the Ukraine war, as Al-Yaakoubi notes: “This is a consequence of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. This war is changing regional relations, especially when it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Turkey. Things are changing.”

But the Ukraine war is not the main catalyst for a possible Saudi-Iranian normalisation of relations. As Alkhames said, “Yes, it could be in the Saudi Arabia’s interest to settle some regional issues like the conflict in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. But the resumption of diplomatic relations would most likely be only transitional. Iran is not giving up on its ‘expansionist’ goals.”

Al-Yaakoubi thinks otherwise. He attributes the cause for optimism to the fact that the Gulf parties need the reconciliation just as much as Iran: “The Iranians are more comfortable than others, they actually bank on crises. It is the other parties who feel under pressure. The Iranians got used to living under siege. They learnt how to deal with more severe pressures. Iran has been under a heap of sanctions for almost 40 years. They are also known for patience and deliberation. The other parties might be the ones who need a quick conclusion.”

Despite Iran’s apparent optimism and Iraq’s contentment that its mediation is working, the concrete outcome of the last round of talks in Baghdad is that the dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran is back. Any breakthrough such as the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran or a spectacular meeting of foreign ministers is yet to be seen.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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