Iran, Saudi Arabia on to a different path beyond ‘good signs’?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz called Tuesday in a television interview for “a good and special relationship” with Tehran, after sources said the two countries had held secret talks in Baghdad.
Friday 30/04/2021
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 30, 2021. (REUTERS)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 30, 2021. (REUTERS)

TEHRAN / LONDON – Iran on Thursday welcomed a “change of tone” from Saudi Arabia that could clear the way to a new era of cooperation between the rival regional powers. But a real change in the relationship is not expected soon.

The Islamic republic has been “a pioneer on the path to regional cooperation and welcomes the change of tone from Saudi Arabia”, said foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz called Tuesday in a television interview for “a good and special relationship” with Tehran, after sources said the two countries had held secret talks in Baghdad.

Khatibzadeh, in a statement, said that “by adopting constructive stances… the two countries… can enter a new chapter of interaction and cooperation to reach peace, stability and regional development, by overcoming differences.”

The two neighbours, locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance, cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a Saudi Shia cleric.

The Saudi crown prince has previously lashed out at Tehran, accusing it of fuelling regional insecurity.

The talks in Baghdad, brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, remained secret until the Financial Times reported that a first meeting had been 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.”

Riyadh has officially denied the talks in its state-backed media, while Tehran has stayed mum, asserting it has “always welcomed” dialogue with Saudi Arabia.

The initiative comes at a time of shifting power dynamics, as US President Joe Biden seeks to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear deal that was abandoned by Donald Trump.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have backed opposite sides of several regional conflicts, from Syria to Yemen, where since 2015 a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iranian-supported Houthi militias.

The militias have also stepped up drone and missile strikes on Saudi targets, including its oil facilities.

In his interview, Prince Mohammed renewed calls for a ceasefire and negotiations with the militias.

A day later, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met the Yemeni militias’ spokesman in Oman, reiterating Tehran’s support for a ceasefire and a return to talks to end the country’s conflict.

At the talks with Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam, Zarif “once again stressed our country’s view regarding the political solution being the only solution to the crisis of Yemen”, the Iranian foreign ministry said.

Analysts believe tangible support by Tehran for a peaceful solution in Yemen hinges upon its ability to garner concessions from the US in the Vienna talks over the Iranian nuclear program.

On Thursday, Zarif tweeted of what he called “good signs” at the end of a Gulf tour.