Ayatollah Raisi breaks the ice of Iran-Saudi relations

July 25, 2021 - 19:42

TEHRAN - With President-elect Ayatollah Seyed Ebrahim Raisi preparing to take the helm in less than two weeks, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are poised to be fully restored.

Ayatollah Raisi has made it clear that he wants better relations with Iran’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Iran were severed in 2016 in the wake of the storming of its diplomatic missions. 

“As for Saudi Arabia, I say that there is no obstacle to having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and relations with all countries. We are ready to reopen embassies,” the president-elect said in his first presser after he won the Iran June presidential election. 

The remarks came in the midst of Iran-Saudi security talks in Baghdad, which was confirmed by both sides. Security and intelligence officials from both sides sat at the negotiating table in the Iraqi capital to address each other’s concerns. The Yemen war was discussed in detail, while other thorny points of contention, such as Lebanon and Iraq, were also touched on. 

The Baghdad talks began in April. Since then, several rounds have been held, and lately, there have been unofficial reports that the venue of talks was moved to Oman. Over the past few weeks, no updates have been given on the latest status of the talks, but Iran hinted at their continuation. 

In his last week's press briefing, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the talks are still underway, and Iran is even ready to raise the level of its negotiators. 

Responding to a question of the Tehran-Riyadh talks, Rabiei once more underlined the importance of regional dialogue from Iran’s perspective. “Regional negotiations are a perennial imperative and so far, we have underlined regional dialogue and talks between the region’s countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran, in line with its principled positions, always wants the peace and security of the Persian Gulf region to be protected by the region’s countries,” he said. 

The spokesman elaborated on the ongoing talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Iran-Saudi bilateral talks have been ongoing through proper channels. We are committed to moving ahead with the talks to address all disagreements between the two countries and if there is an agreement on and a need for elevating the level of talks, we have no limits for that,” he continued. 

It’s true that this position was expressed by the outgoing administration of Hassan Rouhani, but it’s important to understand that Ayatollah Raisi is the driving force behind Iran’s push to improve ties with the regional players. Had the Raisi team not been supportive of this push, the Rouhani administration would most probably have refrained from voicing readiness to dispatch an ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 24 hours on its way out. 

The Raisi team showed its support of improving ties with the Saudis by inviting them to the president-elect inauguration ceremony, which is expected to be held on August 5. Iranian media outlets reported that Saudi Arabia is likely to dispatch a representative to Iran to attend the inauguration. “Due to the resolution of all bilateral disputes, it is possible to announce the improvement of relations between Tehran and Riyadh and the reopening of embassies at any time,” an informed source was quoted by the Etemad Online as saying. The source said the Iran-Saudi talks are ongoing in Arab capitals, and the remaining issues do not pertain to bilateral issues. Instead, the unresolved issues have something to do with Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq. “The two sides are negotiating a symbolic move at the inauguration ceremony, after which relations will begin,” the source said. 

Ayatollah Raisi himself made sure to signal his openness to improving relations with the region’s countries after winning Iran’s presidential election. He spoke on the phone with a number of regional leaders. Most recently, he held a telephone conversation with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman, who has recently paid a vociferous visit to Saudi Arabia.

“Engagement, dialogue, consultation, and brainstorming with neighbors about the important issues of the region are a priority of the thirteenth government,” Raisi told the sultan in their phone conversation. 

After years of bitter diplomatic tensions, Iran and Saudi Arabia inching slowly toward a full resumption of diplomatic ties. Iran is ready to do it in a matter of hours, but is Saudi Arabia ready to do the same?

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