Secret Iran-Saudi Talks

On April 9, Iran and Saudi Arabia held direct talks five years after severing diplomatic relations. The talks in Baghdad were mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi. The Iran delegation was led by Saeed Iravani, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. The Saudi delegation was led by Khalid al Humaidan, the chief of intelligence. The discussion focused primarily on Yemen, where Riyadh and Tehran have backed opposing sides since the civil war erupted in 2014. The delegations also reportedly discussed the political and financial crisis in Lebanon, where Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposing political blocs.

The secret talks were first reported by the Financial Times on April 17. Neither country acknowledged the dialogue, but Tehran issued an uncharacteristically friendly statement about its regional rival. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has always welcomed dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and considers it in the interest of the people of the two countries, as well as peace and stability in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on April 19. A second round of talks were scheduled for late April or early May, Reuters reported.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, appeared to endorse diplomacy with Iran during a television interview on April 27. “We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult,” he said. “On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow.” Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missiles and support for regional proxies were impediments to closer ties, the crown prince acknowledged. “We really hope we would overcome them and build a good positive relationship with Iran that would benefit all parties,” he added.

On May 7, Saudi Arabia confirmed that it had held talks with Iran. “We hope they (talks) prove successful, but it is too early, and premature, to reach any definitive conclusions,” Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the Saudi foreign ministry, told Reuters. ”Our evaluation will be based on verifiable deeds, and not proclamations.”

The dialogue coincided with two diplomatic initiatives by the Biden administration to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and end the war in Yemen. Top U.S. officials have pushed for a de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the Gulf states to facilitate both objectives. In May 2020, before they were appointed to top jobs in the Biden administration, Jake Sullivan (now the national security advisor) and Dan Benaim (now deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula affairs) wrote an op-ed in Foreign Affairs calling for a “structured regional dialogue” between Iran and its neighbors.

IRAN KSAIran, which is predominantly Shiite, and Saudi Arabia, which is mainly Sunni, have been regional rivals since Iran’s 1979 revolution, which ended 2,500 years of dynastic rule. The Saudi monarchy, which based its legitimacy on Islam, felt threatened by the Islamic Republic, which condemned monarchies as an illegitimate form of government. In the past decade, political tensions have increased over regional conflicts, particularly in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, Tehran supported President Bashar al Assad, while Riyadh reportedly funneled money to Syrian opposition groups. In Yemen, Iran has armed and aided the Houthis, while the Saudi military launched an air war in 2015 to prevent a complete takeover by Houthi rebels. The two countries severed diplomatic relations in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al Nimr, a popular local Shiite cleric, and Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in retaliation. The following is a timeline of the Iran-Saudi dialogue. 

 

Timeline:

March 31: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while visiting Riyadh. The visit facilitated the first round of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reported.

April 9: Senior Iranian and Saudi officials held the first round of direct talks in Baghdad mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi, the Financial Times reported. The officials discussed the civil war in Yemen and the political and financial crisis in Lebanon, Reuters reported.

April 19: Tehran said that it “welcomed dialogue” with Riyadh but did not confirm that direct talks had occurred. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has always welcomed dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and considers it in the interest of the people of the two countries, as well as peace and stability in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

April 21: Iran and Saudi Arabia would hold a second round of direct talks in late April or early May, Reuters reported. The timing of the second meeting would depend on progress in Vienna negotiations between Iran and the six world powers on returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

April 27: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for a “good and distinguished relationship with Iran” in an interview on Saudi television. Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its support for regional proxies, were the main impediments to closer ties, the crown prince said. “We are working now with our partners in the region and the world to find solutions to these problems,” he said.

April 29: The Iranian Foreign Ministry said that a “constructive and dialogue-oriented approach” with Saudi Arabia could lead to “new chapter of interaction and cooperation” between the regional rivals.

May 5: Baghdad hosted talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran "more than once," Iraqi President Barham Salih said during an event with the Beirut Institute. “It is ongoing, and it is important and it is significant, and for Iraq to be able to play that convening role between these regional actors is important,” he said. 

May 7: For the first time, Saudi Arabia confirmed that it was holding direct talks with Iran to reduce regional tensions. “We hope they (talks) prove successful, but it is too early, and premature, to reach any definitive conclusions,” Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the Saudi foreign ministry, told Reuters. ”Our evaluation will be based on verifiable deeds, and not proclamations.”

 

Updated