BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a television interview four years ago, Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, rejected the idea that his kingdom could somehow find accommodation with its Iranian archives.
“How do we communicate?” He asked. “The reciprocal points on which we can agree with this regime are almost non-existent.”
Prince Mohammed now finds these points when he makes diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between the two regional powers that are at the heart of the Middle East conflict.
Last month, the Saudi intelligence chief began secret talks with a senior Iranian security official in Baghdad to discuss several areas of strife, including the war in Yemen and Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Iraqi and Iranian authorities said.
While concrete signs of a new understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran are yet to emerge and may take a long time, if at all, even a cooling of sentiment between opponents may reverberate in countries where their rivalry fuels political animosity and armed conflict, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“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 in order to bring stability and peace to the region,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed. Hatibzadeh said at a press briefing on Thursday in response to Prince Mohammed’s remarks.
Negotiations in Baghdad began amid a broader reshuffle of relations in the Middle East as the region adjusts to changes in style and policy from President Trump to President Biden, changes that seem to have made Saudi Arabia more susceptible to regional diplomacy.
While Mr. Trump allied closely with Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” aimed at pushing concessions from Iran, Biden cooled US relations with Saudi Arabia and resumed diplomacy. to the restoration of the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr Biden sharply criticized human rights criticism in Saudi Arabia during the presidential campaign and vowed to reassess US relations with the kingdom. Once in office, he ordered an intelligence assessment to be released, according to which Prince Mohammed may have ordered the assassination of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Hashoghi, although he refused to sanction the prince directly.
Last month, the White House said it would stop selling offensive weapons in Saudi Arabia in a bid to withdraw US support for the catastrophic war in Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
It seems that Saudi Arabia has changed its behavior to match the new tone.
With the entry of the new administration, Saudi Arabia has released a number of high-ranking prisoners and lifted the four-year blockade imposed by other Arab countries on Qatar, another close US partner that also maintains ties with Iran.
Last week, the Saudi king invited the emir of Qatar to visit Saudi Arabia, a powerful gesture of reconciliation.
However, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has publicly acknowledged the talks. The Saudi authorities have even publicly denied them. Their existence has been confirmed privately by Iraqi and Iranian officials.
Analysts say recent changes in U.S. administrations, along with Washington’s long-term decline in focus on the Middle East, which has led Saudis to question America’s commitment to its defense, have weakened Saudi Arabia’s hand, forcing it to take more action. a slightly militant approach to Iran.
“America is seceding from the Middle East, gathering troops and focusing on Asia, and the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran will facilitate that outcome,” said Ali Holizadeh, a political analyst in Iran. “Iran is using this strategic opportunity.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been vying for influence in the Middle East, and the kingdom accuses Iran of using proxies to fight wars and weaken Arab states, destabilizing the region. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a key player in US and Israeli efforts to dominate the region and destabilize Iran.
Talks in Baghdad, hosted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qadhimi on April 9th, have begun to address some of these issues. Iraqi and Iranian officials say the discussions have affected the activities of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the war in Yemen, where a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia is waging war against Iranian-backed Husseins.
The talks, first reported by The Financial Times, brought together senior Saudi and Iranian security officials, according to two Iraqi officials, an Iranian official and an Iranian government adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide information to news media.
The Iranian government adviser said Khalid al-Khomeidan, the head of Saudi intelligence, and Saeed Irawani, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, were in the talks.
Officials said the parties agreed to hold further talks in Baghdad in May, possibly between ambassadors.
Asked to comment, the Saudi government issued a statement saying it would “use every opportunity to promote peace and stability in the region”, provided that Iran “shows goodwill” and “ceases its malicious activities”.
Each country is likely to make big demands on the other.
Iranian officials and analysts say Iran wants to resolve the conflict in Yemen by ensuring that the Hutus have a role in the distribution of power in the government. Iran also wants Saudi Arabia to withdraw its campaign to push for the removal of Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, to stop lobbying for sanctions against Iran and not to normalize relations with Israel, as several other Arab states have done.
The Saudis want to find a way to end the Yemeni war and limit the provocations of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that have attacked Saudi targets and fired drones against the Kingdom of Iraq, according to Sajad Jiyad, based in Baghdad, the Century Foundation. independent research group.
Ultimately, the two sides could discuss the resumption of diplomatic relations, which ended in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and Iranians protesting the execution of two Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
Yasmin Farouk, a visiting scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which studies Saudi Arabia, said she expects the first priority to be some kind of regional security agreement, as the two countries have had in the past.
“They will have to do this before they can get to the point of talking about sharing their influence in the region,” she said.
The very decision to hold a direct conversation with Iran signals a change in Saudi policy, she said, given that Saudis had previously refused to discuss Yemen with Iran because they believed Iran’s involvement there was illegal.
“Now they are becoming more realistic and mature and think that talking to the Iranians will be more useful than just saying they have to leave Yemen,” she said.
Prince Mohammed took a firm stand on Iran after his father, King Salman, ascended the Saudi throne in 2015 and delegated enormous power to his beloved son.
“We are a major target for the Iranian regime,” Prince Mohammed said in a television interview in 2017, arguing that Iran’s revolutionary ideology had made negotiations with its leaders impossible. “We will not wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran. “
His tone was significantly different over the past week. Although he did not recognize the talks with Iran, he described it as a “neighboring country” that Saudi Arabia wants to “prosper and grow.”
“We have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which should stimulate prosperity and growth in the region and around the world,” he said in an interview broadcast on Saudi state television on Tuesday.
Ben Hubbard reports from Beirut, Lebanon; Farnaz Fasihi of New York; and Jane Araf of Amman, Jordan. Falih Hassan contributed with reports from Baghdad.