Iran-Saudi contacts geared at Yemen, not a game changer for now

“The key question here is: could this round of negotiations put an end to Yemen’s protracted war or lead to just a temporary ceasefire?”, Ahmed Nagi, a scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre, said.
Friday 07/05/2021
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman greets Iraq’s President Barham Salih shake in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 1, 2019. (REUTERS)
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman greets Iraq’s President Barham Salih shake in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 1, 2019. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD--Iraq has hosted more than one round of talks between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Wednesday.

Salih made his remarks during an interview broadcast live online with the Beirut Institute think tank. He gave no more details.

Asked how many rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks Iraq had hosted, Salih replied: “More than once.”

“It is ongoing, and it is important and it is significant, and for Iraq to be able to play that convening role between these regional actors is important,” he added, although he gave no further details of the talks.

Amid such statements, there is obviously the Iraqi desire to position itself as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Baghdad has a lot to gain from that kind of position in terms of regional and international dividends.

But 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.

The dialogue marks the first significant effort to defuse tensions since the regional powers cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions, after the kingdom’s execution of a Shia cleric .

Riyadh’s endgame seems based on a desire for de-escalation and appeasement. It is seen as tactical and not a strategic game changer.

 Yemen issue 

Riyadh is now seeking a more responsive attitude from Tehran to wind down its six-year military engagement in neighbouring Yemen, where Houthi militias have launched a campaign to seize the last northern government stronghold of Marib and stepped up missile and drones strikes on the kingdom. Iran’s support to the Houthis with lethal weapons and military advice on the ground has been instrumental in the continuation of the war and the Houthi’s refusal to accept the Saudi plan for a cease fire and a settlement.

In parallel with efforts in Baghdad, an American delegation led by US special envoy Tim Lenderking and Senator Chris Murphy met during the past week the UN envoy Martin Griffiths in Oman as part of a diplomatic push for a ceasefire in Yemen.

“There is a direct link between Saudi-Iran talks and what is happening in Muscat given the leverage the Iranians have over the Houthis,”  said Ahmed Nagi, a scholar at Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Iraq’s President Barham Salih (R) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 26, 2021 in Baghdad. (AFP)
Iraq’s President Barham Salih (R) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 26, 2021 in Baghdad. (AFP)

“The key question here is: could this round of negotiations put an end to Yemen’s protracted war or lead to just a temporary ceasefire?”

“All efforts are aimed at trying to de-escalate the conflict between Saudis and the Houthis, but there are several layers of conflict… (that will require) long-term and multi-track mechanisms, which seem absent.”

Washington and Tehran have engaged in indirect talks in Vienna that seek to revive an international pact reached in 2015 that constrained Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.

Former US President Donald Trump pulled out the deal in 2018 and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran and its regional allies, increasing tension as Iran-backed militias struck at US forces in Iraq and a series of attacks hit oil installations and tankers in the Gulf, where Washington counts Arab states such as Saudi Arabia among its close allies.

The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US air strike in Baghdad in January 2020 brought the region close to war. Iran responded with limited missile strikes against a US base in Iraq, the first such direct attack, but took no further action.

Iraqis hope for a general regional detente that would allow their country to rebuild instead of being used as an arena for US, Gulf Arab and Iranian score-settling.

Baghdad is trying to rein in powerful Iran-backed militias and deal with a resurgent Islamic State – the Sunni hard-line Islamist group that took over a third of Iraq in 2014 and was beaten militarily in 2017 by US forces, the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and Iran-aligned paramilitaries.

“The war against ISIS (Islamic State) and terrorism cannot be won by (only) military means,” Salih said. “We have succeeded in liberating our land with the help of our friends but terrorism remains.”

He added that he wished to see a solution to the Iran-US rivalry that has fuelled violence in Iraq.

“The Middle East has been condemned to a cycle of conflict and instability over the last few decades… It’s time to move beyond,” Salih said.

The kingdom is moving to lower the temperature on several fronts — including patching up a bitter three-year feud with rival Qatar — as it courts investment to fund its ambitious megaprojects meant to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

But its main struggle is to disentangle itself from the wrenching conflict in Yemen, which has left tens of thousands of people dead and triggered an humanitarian crisis.

According to some analysts, hopes that talks with Iran will help the kingdom achieve that the Houthis would like eventually to enter direct talks with Riyadh.

“The Houthis would prefer to be their own interlocutor with Saudi Arabia and will not want Iran taking their place in that,” Elana DeLozier, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.