BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a prime-time TV interview four years ago, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia dismissed the idea that his kingdom might somehow find accommodation with his rival, the ‘Iran.
“How do we communicate?” He asked. “The commonalities on which we can agree with this regime are almost non-existent.”
Now Prince Mohammed finds these points as he embarks on a diplomatic effort to defuse the tensions between the two regional powers that have underpinned conflicts across the Middle East.
Last month, the Saudi intelligence chief began secret talks with a senior Iranian security official in Baghdad to discuss several areas of contention, including the war in Yemen and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, said Iraqi and Iranian officials.
And in a televised interview last week, Prince Mohammed presented the vision of the kingdom of Iran in a new light, saying his country opposes “some negative behavior” but hopes “to build a good and positive relationship. with Iran that would benefit all parties. . “
While concrete signs of a new Saudi-Iran deal have yet to emerge and could take time, if they do occur, even a cooling of minds between adversaries could resonate in countries where their rivalry fuels political quarrels and armed conflicts. , including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“With constructive negotiations and prospects, the two important countries of the region and the Islamic world can put their differences behind them and enter a new phase of cooperation and tolerance to bring stability and peace to the region,” he said. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Thursday during a press briefing in response to Prince Mohammed’s remarks.
Talks in Baghdad began against the backdrop of a broader reshuffle in Middle East relations as the region adjusts to changes in style and policy from President Trump to President Biden, changes that appear to have made Arabia Arabia more receptive to regional diplomacy.
While Mr. Trump has closely allied himself with Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” aimed at making concessions to Iran, Mr. Biden has cooled US relations with Saudi Arabia and resumed. diplomacy aimed at restoring the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr Biden harshly criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record during the presidential election campaign and vowed to reassess US relations with the kingdom. Once in office, he ordered the publication of an intelligence assessment that Prince Mohammed likely ordered the murder of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, although he refused to directly sanction the prince.
Last month, the White House announced it would suspend sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia in a bid to withdraw US support for Saudi Arabia’s catastrophic war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia appears to have changed its behavior to match the new tone.
Upon the arrival of the new administration, Saudi Arabia freed a number of high-level prisoners and ended the four-year blockade it and other Arab countries had imposed on Qatar, another close partner. of the United States which 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 have publicly acknowledged the talks. Saudi officials have even publicly denied them. Their existence has been privately confirmed by Iraqi and Iranian officials.
Analysts say recent changes in US administrations, in addition to a longer-term reduction in Washington’s focus on the Middle East that causes the Saudis to question America’s commitment to defense, weakened Saudi Arabia’s hand, forcing it to take a less belligerent approach towards Iran.
“America is disengaging from the Middle East, withdrawing troops and focusing on Asia, and a balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran will facilitate this exit,” said Ali Qholizadeh, an analyst politics in Iran. “Iran is seizing this strategic opportunity.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long feuded for influence across the Middle East, and the kingdom accuses Iran of using proxies to wage wars and weaken Arab states, destabilizing the region. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a key player in the efforts of the United States and Israel to dominate the region and destabilize Iran.
The talks in Baghdad, hosted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on April 9, have begun to address some of these issues. Iraqi and Iranian officials said discussions focused on the activities of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states is waging a war against the Houthis. by Iran.
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 allowed to provide the information to the news media.
The Iranian government adviser said the talks included Khalid al-Homeidan, the Saudi intelligence chief, and Saeed Iravani, the deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
Officials said the countries agreed to hold new talks in Baghdad in May, possibly among ambassadors.
Asked for comment, the Saudi government released a statement saying it would “seize any opportunity to promote peace and stability in the region”, provided Iran “shows goodwill” and “ceases its malicious activities. “.
Each party is likely to make great demands on the other.
Iranian officials and analysts have said Iran wants to resolve the conflict in Yemen, ensuring that the Houthis have a power-sharing role in government. Iran also wants Saudi Arabia to drop its campaign of pressure to remove Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria, to stop pushing for sanctions against Iran, and not to normalize its relations with Israel as several other Arab countries have done so.
The Saudis want to find a way to end the war in Yemen and curb provocations by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq who have attacked Saudi targets and launched drones against the kingdom from Iraq, according to Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based colleague at the Century Foundation, an independent research group.
Eventually, the two sides could discuss restoring diplomatic relations, which ended in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric and Iranians protesting the execution of two Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
Yasmine Farouk, a guest researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies Saudi Arabia, said she expected the first priority to be reaching some sort of regional security arrangement like the two countries do. had done in the past.
“They should do this before they can talk about the distribution of their influence in the region,” she said.
The simple decision to speak directly with Iran signaled a change in Saudi policy, she said, given that the Saudis had previously refused to discuss Yemen with Iran because they considered the involvement of the ‘Iran there as illegitimate.
“Now they are becoming more realistic and more mature and they feel that talking with the Iranians will be more beneficial than just saying that they have to leave Yemen,” she said.
Prince Mohammed took a hard line on Iran after his father, King Salman, ascended the Saudi throne in 2015 and delegated enormous power to his favorite son.
“We are a primary target of the Iranian regime,” Prince Mohammed said in a 2017 television interview, saying Iran’s revolutionary ideology made negotiations with its leaders impossible. “We will not wait for the battle to unfold in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work to make the battle for them in Iran.
His tone was markedly different last week. Although he did not recognize the talks with Iran, he described it as “a neighboring country” that Saudi Arabia wanted “to prosper and develop”.
“We have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which are to spur prosperity and growth in the region and around the world,” he said in an interview released on Tuesday. Saudi public television.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, Lebanon; Farnaz Fassihi from New York; and Jane Arraf from Amman, Jordan. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad.