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Saudi-Iran talks could pave the way for regional détente

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
It was an extremely positive round of talks. This is how one Iraqi diplomat described the fifth round of Saudi-Iran talks, held under Iraqi auspices in Baghdad last week. Until this latest round, negotiations between the two key regional players have been shrouded in secrecy, with no indication that progress was being made. In this round, top security officials from the two countries met face to face.اضافة اعلان

Riyadh has been especially irate by the repeated drone and missile attacks by pro-Iran Houthi rebels in Yemen against largely civilian targets in the kingdom. It wanted talks with Tehran to cover a wider range of issues than the resumption of bilateral ties. Riyadh severed relations with Iran in January 2016 after an Iranian mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

According to various media reports, Iran has relented to Saudi pressure to include the war in Yemen in future negotiations. On April 25, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said that he expected acceleration in bilateral talks, while last month, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in a televised interview: “If we aim to reach a new stage in the talks with Saudi Arabia, all dimensions and aspects must be taken into consideration.”

Analysts now predict that the coming weeks will see an exchange of diplomatic visits and maybe a resumption of ties at consular level. Tehran also hopes that Riyadh will allow a bigger share of Iranians to participate in this year’s Hajj season as a gesture of good will. Other sources talked about Saudi Arabia lifting its objection to Iran’s return to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The two archrivals appear to have decided to take confidence-building measures to end years of animosity triggered by Iran’s controversial regional agenda, which is seen by Riyadh and other Arab countries as a major destabilizing factor.

Where the Yemen conflict is concerned, Saudi Arabia recently took constructive steps to initiate a wide-ranging national dialogue that involves all parties in the war-torn country that includes the Houthis, who had boycotted the Riyadh dialogue. The GCC sponsored intra-Yemen talks and took a number of important steps to defuse tensions and open a new chapter toward reaching a political settlement to the civil war there.

An eight-member presidential council was sworn in last month, replacing the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. While the Houthis refuse to engage in a political process, the truce that the Saudi-led coalition had agreed to as of April 1 is holding so far.
For stability in the immediate Gulf region and beyond, the two key regional powers must come to a series of understandings. Regardless of the outcome of the Vienna talks, Iran’s rulers need to recalibrate their regional policy in order to accommodate the legitimate concerns of its neighbors.
The truce is seen by both Riyadh and Tehran as a good building block for serious negotiations to resolve the Yemen conflict. The seven-year war had reached a stalemate and has turned into a proxy war, which no one, expect the Houthis, wants.

It is no secret that Riyadh had become increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s lack of clear policy on Yemen. The US had failed to react quickly and decisively to the Houthi escalation after striking targets in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. A revival of the Iran nuclear agreement is unlikely to put constraints on its long-range missile program or harness its regional expansion. Once more America’s Arab allies believe Washington has not done enough to curtail Tehran’s belligerent regional agenda.

This perhaps is why Riyadh has chosen to engage its rivals directly with the aim of ending conflicts and setting the stage for a new regional order that does not rely on outside powers. 

On the other hand, the two sides may have reached the conclusion that confrontation is leading nowhere. For stability in the immediate Gulf region and beyond, the two key regional powers must come to a series of understandings. Regardless of the outcome of the Vienna talks, Iran’s rulers need to recalibrate their regional policy in order to accommodate the legitimate concerns of its neighbors.

With sharp geopolitical shifts, Iran faces mounting economic pressures and environmental challenges at home and has to deal with growing discontent by its own citizens. Its proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have drained its resources. Even if the oil sanctions are lifted, it will take the Iranian economy a long time to recover.

For Iraq, which initiated the mediation between the two countries under Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, rapprochement between the two regional powers would go a long way in calming the deeply polarized political scene in Baghdad. Kadhimi has been able to restore his country’s place in the Arab world without damaging ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia has been backing his efforts to rid Iraq of sectarian tensions.

Now the onus is on Tehran to respond positively to Riyadh’s overtures by adopting a new regional stance that underlines its respect of its neighbors’ sovereignty and its commitment to work toward the stability of the region after years of costly and inconclusive conflicts.


The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.


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