Saudis “serious” in talks with Iran

October 15, 2021 - 17:30

TEHRAN - Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has said the kingdom is “serious” about talks with Iran, signaling Riyadh’s desire to repair relations between the two sides following multiple offers by Iran to ease tensions with a number of initiatives that Tehran has publicly announced and presented the international arena.

A Saudi official added that Riyadh was considering reopening Iran’s consulate in the port city of Jeddah but said the talks had not made sufficient progress in restoring full diplomatic relations, something Iran has been pushing for with some Persian Gulf neighbors.

Since April, the kingdom has held four rounds of talks with Iran, including a first meeting last month with the new government of president Ebrahim Raisi. Analysts say the negotiations are a sign of step-by-step attempts to de-escalate tensions in West Asia in the wake of the election of U.S. President Joe Biden and with the economic hardship in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to the Financial Times, in a rare interview with a foreign media outlet, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, told the newspaper that the talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been “cordial” while describing the negotiations as “exploratory.” He claims, “we are serious about the talks. For us, it’s not that big a shift. We’ve always said we want to find a way to stabilize the region.”

Riyadh wants Tehran to use its influence to end the war in Yemen. In January 2016, Riyadh and Tehran cut diplomatic ties after Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the republic was subject to protests. The demonstrations came after Saudi Arabia beheaded senior Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr for voicing his opposition to Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on the Shia minority population living in the Kingdom oil-rich Eastern province. Despite the region’s wealth, Human Rights Groups have decried the social injustice saying the Shia in Saudi Arabia have been discriminated against, not provided the same opportunities as the Sunni population while at the same time prevented from any positions of authority.

Riyadh says it believes the negotiations with Tehran have not yet made significant progress to a level where the restoration of full diplomatic relations. But a Saudi official told the Financial Times that Saudi Arabia is working on opening an Iranian consulate in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. Riyadh says it is also considering Iran to reopen its representative office for the Organization of Islamic Co-operation in the same town. However, the kingdom says it was not yet ready to reopen a consulate in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, with a senior official saying the dialogue so far lacked “substance.”

Iranian authorities have not commented on the claims made by the Saudis officials.

The discussions took place amid European diplomatic efforts to broker a deal on Washington’s return to the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015.

The Saudi official claims that Tehran is “focused on signaling, especially to the west, [they are signaling] that ‘look, we have resolved our issues with the Saudis and any lingering things we can work out together so don’t talk to us about regional security,” he said. “‘Treat us like a normal country and let’s do this [nuclear] deal.’”

Iran has repeatedly reiterated its stance on the Nuclear Deal, insisting that the United States (which unilaterally withdrew from the deal in May 2018) must remove all the sanctions it reimposed in a verifiable manner before rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Tehran says any other issues such as its missile defense program or support for allies is a red line.

The Iranian government says it is open to resuming the stalled talks in Vienna and is reviewing the details of the negotiations by the previous government and other signatories.

No direct talks between Iran and the United States have taken place in Vienna, with Tehran refusing to speak directly to the administration of President Joe Biden until Washington returns to the agreement first by lifting its unilateral sanctions, which Iranian officials have described as economic terrorism.

This year President Raisi took over from former president Hassan Rouhani, who inked the nuclear deal. The Saudi official alleges Riyadh always “had the philosophy we want to speak to the real decision-makers.”

Tensions escalated between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Riyadh backed former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Tehran and impose crippling sanctions on the republic. The following year Yemeni forces conducted a sophisticated missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s crude output. Riyadh blamed Yemen’s retaliatory attack on Iran, despite Yemen growing its capabilities over the years in retaliating against the daily Saudi bombardment of its residential neighborhoods.

But Saudi Arabia appears to have reconsidered its more assertive foreign policy after U.S. President Joe
Biden took office and pledged to reassess ties with the kingdom, criticizing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and allegedly halting some “offensive” arms sales to Riyadh.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, Riyadh had aggressively pursued its war with Yemen’s popular Ansarullah movement and allied Yemeni army, became embroiled in a bitter diplomatic row with Canada and briefly detaining Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, forcing him to publicly resign on Saudi state media. Despite this, Prince Faisal claims that Riyadh “did not pick fights.”

He says, “the leadership has a clear policy that the priority is prosperity, building the country, Vision 2030 [reform plan], and you can’t deliver those things with a region in turmoil. So while we will vigorously defend our national security and our sovereignty, we will try to resolve them through diplomacy as well.”

He added that there was a “confluence of events that made it feel like it was the right moment” to talk to Iran. “We were always willing to talk if they might actually be serious,” he claims. “Various factors
came into play.”

Saudi diplomats say Riyadh wants Tehran to use its influence over Ansarullah in Yemen to help end the war there, with the kingdom keen to exit the conflict after waging war in 2015 to back the former Yemeni government.

However, experts say the quagmire Saudi Arabia finds itself in Yemen has nothing to do with Iran. Saudi Arabia began the war, and while Iran supports the Yemeni government, it cannot change the determination of the Yemeni people to liberate their land and restore their sovereignty from Saudi control. Iran has called for talks between Riyadh and Sana’a to halt the Saudi war and end the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” in Yemen.

Last month, the Associated Press reported satellite imagery showing that the U.S. had pulled its Patriot air defense system out of Saudi Arabia.
But Prince Faisal put a positive spin on the issue, saying Washington had assured the kingdom that its “commitment to our security and the security of our border is ironclad, and we take them at their word.”

“We have a robust dialogue with the Americans; we agree 90 percent of the time,” he said. “Are we unhappy about the general tone in Washington, not the administration? We think it’s not entirely based on where the true relationship is and the value of the relationship, but it’s affected by domestic factors.”

In the aftermath of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan and its abandonment of the Afghan government and army, analysts say Riyadh may have to think twice about relying on Washington for security.

Elsewhere, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement that the Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud had met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington and exchanged views on the Iranian nuclear program and the international talks in this regard.

Iran says regional security can only be made possible by talks among neighbors in the region without foreign interference. Tehran has presented several initiatives to its Persian Gulf Allies to reduce tensions. Among them is the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, presented at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. A carefully planned step toward reduction of the existing tensions in the region. However, under former President Donald Trump, who supported and armed Saudi Arabia to the teeth, Riyadh did not accept the proposal. With a change of Presidents in the White House and Washington focusing more on China and Russia, a delegation from Saudi Arabia has decided to sit down at the table with its counterpart Iran at several summits in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.


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