Representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran have come to Iraq with the aim of continuing a dialogue that seeks a rapprochement between the two countries, without formal relations since 2016. The meeting follows on the heels of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement summit held in Baghdad in August. In addition to officials from the respective powers, French President Emmanuel Macron, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II also attended.
According to the Associated Press, the meeting discussed "outstanding issues between the two countries, in accordance with the previously agreed roadmap". In addition, an Iraqi official told the agency, the Saudi and Iranian officials also discussed "diplomatic representation" between the two countries
The restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh would be a milestone in the foreign policy of the two powers, as well as having consequences for the entire Middle East region. Following the execution in Saudi Arabia of dissident Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, hundreds of people stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad in January 2016. Riyadh responded to the events by severing diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime. Therefore, the fact that the two sides have addressed the diplomatic issue is a major step in the process of rapprochement.
Also, as the Iraqi source assured AP, the meeting was not at ministerial level, but the talks were "positive".
The meeting was the first of its kind since conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi took office as president in August. Raisi, during his first press conference as the country's leader, did not rule out the reopening of the Iranian and Saudi embassies in the capitals. This move may be in line with Raisi's plans to alleviate the country's dire economic situation.
"Raisi's ultimate goal is the economy. One of the means to achieve this is foreign trade, and when we talk about foreign trade that means de-escalation, détente with Saudi Arabia," political analyst Mostafa Khoshcheshm tells CCN. Also, during his inauguration ceremony in Tehran's parliament, the president said he was willing to use the "diplomatic track" to mend fences with regional neighbours.
Raisi's election victory raised concerns about the Vienna negotiations to restore the nuclear deal. His more conservative character compared to his predecessor, Hasan Rohani, also initially derailed the process of rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, although now, according to Raisi's statements, the current president seems to be continuing along the path laid out by Rohani in this regard.
Under the previous Iranian government, an exchange of diplomatic visits with Riyadh was approved a year after the incidents at the Saudi embassy. Also, when the rapprochement began in April, the Foreign Ministry asserted that "with negotiations and a constructive perspective, the two important countries in the region and the Islamic world can leave their differences behind and enter a new phase of cooperation and tolerance to bring stability and peace to the region".
The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran, in addition to their differences, was on the agenda at the start of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.
According to Reuters, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met with Saudi and other Gulf officials in New York. Iraq, the main mediator between the two powers, was also present at the meeting.
"Our meeting underlines the fact that only diplomacy and dialogue can end crises, misunderstandings and differences," Amirabdollahian said, as reported by Mehr news agency. "The priority of the new government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to strengthen and develop relations with its neighbours and the region," he added.
Also at the UN, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz mentioned rapprochement with Iran, which he considers a "neighbouring state". "We hope that our initial talks with Iran will result in concrete confidence-building measures, measures that will achieve the aspirations of our two peoples," bin Abdulaziz said.
The monarch stressed moving towards "collaborative relations based on commitment to the principles and resolutions of international legitimacy", as well as "respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others".
In addition to bringing positions closer together, he has also aligned himself with the West in confronting Tehran's nuclear development. The Saudi king reaffirmed 'the importance of making the Middle East a region free of all weapons of mass destruction' before the General Assembly. He also alluded to the war in Yemen, a key issue in the rapprochement. "Unfortunately the Houthi terrorist militia rejects peaceful solutions. They have opted for a military option to seize more territory in Yemen," he added.
It is precisely this conflict that is one of the most relevant focal points of confrontation between the two Middle Eastern powers. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran on multiple occasions of supporting the Houthi rebel militias, a group that has even attacked Saudi territory. Addressing the world representatives, bin Abdulaziz stressed that Tehran must cease "all forms of support for terrorist groups and sectarian militias that only bring war, destruction and suffering to the people of the region".
Yemen is not the only point of contention, however. In Syria, they have also held opposing positions. While Saudi Arabia backs armed groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad, Iran backs the Syrian government. Their disagreements also include religious differences and economic rivalry.
Iraq has positioned itself as the main mediator between the two powers in the region after years of instability. Baghdad went from organising the first secret meetings between Saudi Arabia and Iran to planning a summit for rapprochement with world leaders such as Macron.
"The holding of this conference in Baghdad is clear evidence of Iraq's adoption of a policy of balance and positive cooperation in its foreign relations," said the communiqué of the August Partnership and Cooperation Conference.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein also reaffirmed Iraq's role as a 'mediator between various countries', a fact that has enabled it to achieve 'an important diplomatic role among neighbouring nations'.