There has been much speculation about a possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, perennial regional rivals. Rumours began in April of a meeting between senior officials from the two countries in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Little or no information has emerged about these talks, which come at a time of growing instability in the region.
After more than five years without relations, Tehran and Riyadh have sat down again to discuss "both bilateral and regional issues", according to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Said Khatibzadeh. Saudi Arabia decided to cut relations with Iran in 2016 after attacks on its diplomatic offices in the Islamic Republic in protest at the Gulf kingdom's execution of a leading Shia cleric.
Tehran and Riyadh are perennial rivals in a number of regional conflicts in their quest for supremacy in the Middle East. The war in Yemen is one of the main points of friction between the two countries. Speaking to local media in May, Said Khatibzadeh said that Iran supported 'any initiative to resolve the Yemen problem'. For its part, Saudi Arabia wants to put an end to the conflict in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who in recent months have intensified their attacks on Saudi cities and oil installations in the Gulf kingdom.
The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could represent a turning point in the region that could help to generate a climate of stability. Riyadh's attitude towards these talks is extremely cautious, as no information has been made public. Iran, on the other hand, has been somewhat more open and senior Iranian government officials have made statements on the development of these talks. President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, in his first press conference with the media, declared that his "government will give priority to improving ties with the region". He also addressed the Gulf kingdom directly and called on it to "put an end to its military campaign in Yemen".
These statements by Ebrahim Raisi mark the new government's stance towards Saudi Arabia and its intention to continue talks with Riyadh, which come at a decisive moment in terms of a return to the 2015 nuclear pact. One of Riyadh's main concerns is Iran's nuclear programme and its ballistic missile programme. During a nationally broadcast interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) noted that 'our problem is Iran's negative behaviour, from its nuclear programme to its support for outlawed militias in the region, to its launching of ballistic missiles'.
Unlike years ago, when MBS went so far as to compare Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Adolf Hitler, the Saudi Arabian crown prince left the door open to rapprochement with Tehran. "Iran is a neighbouring country. All we ask is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We don't want the situation with Iran to be difficult". Although there is not much information emerging from these talks, in a recent statement Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabie said there has been "good progress" in talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia, but that some of their disputes are complex and may take time to resolve.
"We understand that the disputes may have complexities in some areas that require time to be resolved," Rabiei said, but he insisted that efforts to "minimise differences" would continue. Iran is at a key moment in its foreign policy, and has been engaged in informal talks with the United States since April on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Six rounds of talks have already taken place in Vienna between the signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - China, Russia, France and the UK - but no joint resolution has yet been reached. Iran is demanding that the United States take the first step and lift the economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic, since it was the US that decided to unilaterally pull out of the pact. However, the US is demanding that Tehran fulfil its nuclear commitments under the pact.
Saudi Arabia, which has expressed concern about Iran's ballistic missile plan, has supported US President Joe Biden's initiative to bring back the nuclear deal, but with some reluctance. "We would like to make sure that at least the financial resources provided by the nuclear deal to Iran are not used to destabilise the region," Raed Qarmali, director of the Saudi Foreign Ministry's Policy Planning Department, told Reuters.
The Gulf kingdom has been adopting a more conciliatory tone since the arrival to the US presidency of Joe Biden, who has withdrawn some of the benefits that Saudi Arabia had obtained during Donald Trump's presidency. The Gulf kingdom is thus trying to balance its long-standing enmity with Tehran with its economic goals, as well as trying to bridge differences with Washington over its relationship with the Islamic Republic.