Iranian and Saudi officials reportedly met in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad earlier this month, according to the British paper the Financial Times – the first direct meeting between officials from these two countries since they severed diplomatic ties five years ago.
The two countries are hoping to ease regional tensions stemming mainly from Yemen where Iranian-backed Houthi militants are fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni regime.
On a larger scale, the rivalry between Shia-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is a modern version of the historic divisions between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran after demonstrators in Iran attacked its diplomatic missions, and after the kingdom executed the revered Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman backed former U.S. President Trump’s maximum campaign against the Iranian regime. However, despite strong ties with Washington and a military equipped with advanced U.S. weaponry, Saudi Arabia became vulnerable to Iranian-supported drone and missile attacks on crucial Saudi facilities. In September 2019, a drone attack temporarily knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil output, which constitutes the backbone of the fragile Saudi economy.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has personally played an instrumental role as a bridge between the Saudi and Iranian rivals. The Iranian-Saudi talks were described as “positive” and a second round of talks is expected next week. However, despite the reportedly positive atmosphere, no diplomatic breakthrough was reached.
“This was a low-level meeting to explore whether there might be a way to ease ongoing tensions in the region,” an unnamed Iranian official told Reuters.
A Western diplomat confirmed that the United States and Britain had been informed in advance of the Iranian-Saudi talks. The Biden administration has likely had a large impact on the Iranian-Saudi talks. Since assuming office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden removed the Iranian-backed Houthi militia from the terrorist list and he has displayed a far cooler attitude towards the Saudis compared to Trump.
It is an ironic twist of history that Iraq, of all places, became the meeting place for the first direct talks in recent years between Iran and Saudi Arabia. During the reign of the late Iraqi autocratic leader, Saddam Hussein, Iraq and Iran fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and civilians.
Then, during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, when Hussein invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait, a large U.S.-led international military coalition was sent to the Middle East to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi assault.
Ultimately, the meeting between senior Iranian and Saudi officials in Baghdad underscores the fluidity of Middle Eastern alliances over time. This also includes the Muslim world’s relations with non-Muslim states. Prior to the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979, Iran was a close regional ally of Israel and Saudi Arabia was a foe of the Jewish state.
Today, the roles have been reversed. The Islamist regime in Iran has become an implacable enemy of Israel while the Saudis and Israelis have developed closer ties, albeit covert, in their joint effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program and aggressive policies across the Middle East.