Middle east

Thaw in Sight? Iran, Saudi Arabia Reportedly in Direct Talks to Mend Frayed Ties

Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016 after its diplomatic facilities were attacked by Iranians protesting against the execution of a famous Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia.

Senior Saudi and Iranian officials are in direct talks to resuscitate relations between Riyadh and Tehran, the UK newspaper Financial Times (FT) has cited unnamed sources as saying.

According to FT, the talks are seen as “the first significant political discussions between the two nations” since the 2016 break-up of bilateral ties, and they come amid US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The sources claimed the first round of the negotiations was held in a “positive” atmosphere in Baghdad on 9 April, with a new round slated for next week. Neither Saudi nor Iranian authorities have commented on the issue yet.

“It’s moving faster because the US talks [related to the JCPOA] are moving faster and [because of] the Houthi attacks”, one of the sources said, referring to the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and Iranian-aligned Houthis reportedly launching scores of missiles and explosive-laden drones into the kingdom over the past few months.

The claims came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed in October 2019 that Tehran has always been ready to hold direct talks with Saudi Arabia or negotiate through intermediaries.

“We have always been open to discussing anything with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is our neighbour […]. We do not have any choice but to talk to each other”, Zarif pointed out.

Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations

Ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two influential regional powers, remain frozen, with Riyadh repeatedly accusing Tehran of trying to influence the policies of other Middle Eastern states and of supporting groups considered to be terrorist organisations by the kingdom. The feud has also been exacerbated by the two’s religious differences, given that Iran adheres to the Shia branch of Islam, while Saudi Arabia perceives itself as the leading Sunni Muslim nation.

Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016 after Saudi diplomatic facilities in the Islamic Republic were attacked by people protesting against the execution of a Shiite cleric by Saudi authorities.

The rift further escalated in the wake of the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen, which has been ongoing since 2015, at the request of the country’s President Mansur Hadi. Tehran accuses Riyadh of causing civilian casualties, while the kingdom claims the Islamic Republic is providing weapons and other support to the Shiite Houthi militants.

As far as the JCPOA is concerned, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly opposed the deal, with Riyadh and its allies supporting then-US President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to unilaterally withdraw from the accords and reinstate crippling economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Exactly a year later, Tehran announced that it had started scaling down its JCPOA obligations, including those related to uranium enrichment.

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