Saudi FM says Riyadh is ‘serious’ about talks with Iran

October 15, 2021 - 21:36

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has said the kingdom is “serious” about talks with Iran, signaling Riyadh’s desire to repair relations between two rivals that accuse each other of stoking tensions and instability across West Asia.

A Saudi official added that Riyadh was considering allowing Iran to reopen its consulate in the port city of Jeddah but said the talks had not made sufficient progress to restore full diplomatic relations, something Iran has been pushing for. The kingdom has held four rounds of talks with Iran since April, including a first meeting last month with the government of new president Ebrahim Raisi. The negotiations reflect a de-escalation in the region in the wake of the election of U.S. president Joe Biden and with the economic hardship wrought by the pandemic.

In a rare interview, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, told the Financial Times that the talks with Iran had been “cordial”, while describing the negotiations as “exploratory”.

“We are serious about the talks,” he said. “For us it’s not that big a shift. We’ve always said we want to find a way to stabilize the region.”

Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Iran in January 2016 after Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the republic was ransacked. The diplomatic mission was attacked after Saudi Arabia executed a senior Shia cleric. 

Riyadh believes negotiations have not yet made sufficient progress to restore full relations with Tehran. But a Saudi official told the FT that it was considering an Iranian request for it to open its consulate in Jeddah. Riyadh was also considering allowing Tehran to reopen its representative office for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the port city. However, the kingdom was not yet ready to reopen a consulate in the Iranian religious city of Mashhad, with a senior official saying the dialogue so far lacked “substance”.

The discussions have been taking place amid European diplomatic efforts to broker a deal on Washington’s return to the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015. Talks have stalled since Raisi’s election in June.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran soared 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. 

But Saudi Arabia appeared to have recalibrated its more assertive foreign policy after Biden took office pledging to reassess relations with the kingdom, criticizing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and freezing some arms sales to Riyadh.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship, Riyadh had aggressively pursued its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen; became embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Canada; and briefly detained Saad Hariri while he was Lebanon’s prime minister. But Prince Faisal insisted that Riyadh “did not pick fights”.

“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,” he said. “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 said. “Various factors came into play.”

Diplomats say Riyadh wants Tehran to use its influence over the Houthi rebels in Yemen to help end the war there, with the kingdom keen to exit the conflict after intervening in 2015 to back the ousted Yemeni government.

The Associated Press reported last month that satellite imagery showed that the U.S. had pulled its Patriot air defense system out of Saudi Arabia.

But Prince Faisal said 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.”

The Saudi foreign minister met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington and exchanged views on Iran’s nuclear program and international talks on the matter, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“Had a productive meeting today with my friend Secretary Blinken, during which we discussed a range of issues of common interest & concern to both our nations & ways to strengthen our strategic partnership & cooperation on multiple fronts,” Prince Faisal said in a Twitter post on Friday, according to Reuters.

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