Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom was “serious” about talks with Iran, signaling Riyadh’s desire to repair ties between two rivals who accuse each other of fueling tension and instability in the Middle East.
A Saudi official added that Riyadh was considering allowing Iran to reopen its consulate in the port city of Jeddah, but said talks had not made sufficient progress to restore full diplomatic relations, which Iran had been pushing for. The kingdom has held four rounds of talks with Iran since April, including an initial meeting with the government of new hard-line president Ebrahim Raisi last month. The negotiations reflect a tentative de-escalation in the region following the election of US President Joe Biden and the economic plight of the pandemic.
In a rare interview, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, told the Financial Times that talks with Iran had been “cordial” while he described the negotiations as “exploratory”.
“We are serious about the talks,” he said. â€œIt’s not such a big shift for us. We have always said that we want to find a way to stabilize the region. ”
Riyadh and Tehran, claiming the leadership of the Sunni and Shiite world respectively, severed diplomatic ties in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy in the republic was looted. The diplomatic mission came under attack after Saudi Arabia executed a senior Shiite cleric.
Riyadh believes negotiations have not progressed sufficiently to restore full relations with Tehran. However, a Saudi official told the FT that it was considering an Iranian application to open its consulate in Jeddah. Riyadh also considered allowing Tehran to reopen its Islamic Cooperation Organization in the port city. However, the kingdom was not yet ready to reopen a consulate in the Iranian religious city of Mashhad. A senior official said the dialogue so far lacks “substance”.
The discussions took place amid European diplomatic efforts to broker an agreement on Washington’s return to the nuclear deal that Tehran signed with the world powers in 2015. Talks have stalled since Raisi’s election in June.
The Saudi official added that Tehran was “focused on signaling”. “Especially in the west, [they are signalling] “Look, we’ve resolved our problems with the Saudis and any pending matters that we can work out together, so don’t talk to us about regional security,” he said. â€œ’Treat us like a normal country and let’s do that [nuclear] hand out. ‘”
Raisi, a protÃ©gÃ© of the top Iranian leader, replaced the centrist President Hassan Rohani, the architect of the nuclear deal, this year. The Saudi official said Riyadh has always “had the philosophy we want to talk to the real decision-makers”.
â€œThat is why in the previous government it was pointless to work with [Rouhaniâ€™s foreign minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif because he had no real influence on foreign policy and really no influence on regional policy, â€the official said. “That’s why we wanted to speak to someone close to the Supreme Leader.”
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran increased after Riyadh supported former US President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal with Tehran and impose crippling sanctions on the republic. The following year, Iran was accused of organizing an elaborate missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that temporarily paralyzed half of the kingdom’s crude oil production.
But Saudi Arabia appeared to have realigned its more assertive foreign policy after Biden took office when he pledged to reassess relations with the kingdom, criticized the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and frozen some arms sales to Riyadh.
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh had aggressively continued its war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen; became embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Canada; and briefly detained Saad Hariri when he was Prime Minister of Lebanon. But Prince Faisal insisted that Riyadh “did not fight”.
â€œThe leadership has a clear policy that the prosperity, the development of the country, the Vision 2030 has priority [reform plan]and you cannot deliver these things in a region in turmoil, â€he said. “So while we will vigorously defend our national security and our sovereignty, we will also try to resolve them through diplomacy.”
He added that there was “a confluence of events that made it seem like the right moment” to speak to Iran.
“We were always ready to talk if you really mean business,” he said. “Various factors played a role.”
Diplomats say Riyadh wants Tehran to use its influence on the Houthi rebels in Yemen to end the war there.
The Associated Press reported last month that satellite imagery showed the US had withdrawn its Patriot air defense system from Saudi Arabia.
But Prince Faisal said Washington has assured the kingdom that its “commitment to our security and the security of our border is staunch and we take them at their word”.
“We have a robust dialogue with the Americans, we agree 90 percent of the time,” he said. â€œAre we dissatisfied with the general tone in Washington, not with the government? We believe that it is not based solely on the true relationship and the value of the relationship, but is influenced by domestic factors. “