What to expect from Iran-Saudi talks

July 6, 2021 - 21:10

TEHRAN – After a few weeks of being on the sidelines, the Saudi-Iranian talks are back in the spotlight, with Iran outlining the broader goals that can be achieved through the talks. 

Two Iranian spokesmen offered on Tuesday glimpses into the de-escalation dialogue currently underway between Tehran and Riyadh, after weeks of lack of updates on the talks. The briefings included the latest developments and the point where the talks currently stand as well as the extent to which they can be expected to succeed. 

First, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh responded to remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, who cautiously welcomed talks with Iran but cast doubts on Iran’s commitment to ensuring security in the region.
In remarks to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the top Saudi diplomat commented on the potential restoration of ties between Tehran and Riyadh, saying that Saudi Arabia welcomes talks with Iran but Tehran must prove its commitment to ensuring security and stability in the region with facts. Bin Farhan described as “positive” the stance of both Iran and Saudi Arabia on the talks and expressed hope that the dialogue would lead to a thaw in relations between the two regional heavyweights.

The remarks were the latest sign that the talks proceed in an atmosphere of lack of trust, especially on the Saudi side. The Saudis have agreed to engage in talks only after they came to know that the tide is turning in Iran’s favor after Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump. Over the course of the Trump administration, they were treating requests for talks with Iran with a wait-and-see approach, effectively shelving all offers to patch up ties with Tehran. This approach was adopted due in part to a Saudi desire to see how Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign would end with Iran. 

With Joe Biden vowing to re-engage Iran, the Saudis started to test the waters to see whether they can embark on a dialogue with Iran in parallel with the talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna over a 2015 nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Sensing a Saudi desire for talks, Iran quickly moved to offer the Saudis a pathway for talks. Thus the Iran-Saudi talks went ahead in Baghdad with security and intelligence officials from both sides leading them, another indication that the talks got going in an atmosphere of distrust. Had there been a mutual trust, the talks would have been led by diplomats and politicians. 

During the Baghdad talks, the Yemen war was one of the first issues discussed by the negotiating parties, indicating that the negotiations started off with the most difficult issue. This is typical of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, they wanted to gauge Iran’s seriousness right from the start. Saudi Arabia has long complained about perceived non-compliance by the Iranian government with agreements between Tehran and Riyadh. This may explain why they preferred to negotiate with Iranian security officials outside the government whom they believe have the final say on state matters.

And when the Saudis met these officials in Baghdad, they first broached the Yemen war as a litmus test to see if Iran was serious about its expressions of interest in opening a new chapter with the kingdom. 

Needless to say, Iran has long underlined its seriousness for talks and even castigated the Saudis for their foot-dragging on seizing the opportunity of de-escalation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even expressed readiness to dispatch an ambassador to Saudi Arabia and pay a visit to the kingdom if needed. On many occasions, Zarif called on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the region to strengthen cooperation through an Iranian peace initiative called Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE).

These Iranian gestures of goodwill all fell on deaf ears in Riyadh due to the deep-running distrust by Saudi Arabia.

After weeks of negotiations, Iran and Saudi Arabia now seem to be moving steadily in a direction of de-escalation with Iranian setting realistic goals for the current trajectory. This is reflected in the cautious Saudi move to welcome the outcome of the negotiations and even express a desire to mend ties with Iran. 

Responding to bin Farhan’s remarks, Khatibbzadeh said that “Saudi officials should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its principled positions, has always wanted the countries of the region to maintain peace and security in the Persian Gulf region. This approach, with the efforts and courage of Iran, has helped to end the domination of Daesh and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria and to prevent the infiltration of takfiri groups into the countries of the Persian Gulf.”

The spokesman added, “We have always welcomed the dialogue to achieve positive results and our view of negotiations with Saudi Arabia is positive.”

Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei echoed the same remarks, setting realistic goals for the talks. “Negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the government of Saudi Arabia began with our firm belief in giving priority to our neighbors and the need for peaceful coexistence for peace and security in the region. We continue to believe that dialogue, especially between communities within the Muslim ummah, is the only worthy way to resolve possible differences between them,” Rabiei said. 

He pointed to the complications of talks between Tehran and Riyadh, underlining that there are disagreements that need more time to be solved. But these disagreements, Rabiei noted, can be reduced. 

 Rabiei said Iran will continue the talks until the disagreements are reduced. “In the talks that have taken place between the two sides so far, the issues between the two countries have been discussed from a friendly and good-natured position, and some progress has been made. We understand that in some cases, disputes may have complexities that require appropriate time to be resolved,” Rabiei pointed out. 

He added, “We will continue this dialogue until the disagreements are minimized and we evaluate it positively and we are always ready to seriously continue this dialogue, relying on mutual goodwill, securing the interests and resolving the concerns of both parties. The policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a specific policy called neighborhood policy and regionalism. The best way to ensure the security of the region and not to abuse the countries under the pretext of security is the presence of all countries in the region together.”

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