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.” On May 10, Iran confirmed the talks as well. “De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said during a weekly press conference.
Three rounds of talks were held under outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. His successor, Ebrahim Raisi, signaled his intent to improve ties with Riyadh after he was elected. “I say that there is no obstacle to having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and relations with all countries. We are ready to reopen embassies,” he said on June 21.
After Raisi took office on August 5, Iran confirmed that it would continue the dialogue. “We have had three rounds of negotiations with the Saudi side, and the fourth round is to be held after the formation of a new Iranian government,” Iran’s ambassador to Iraq said on August 31. On September 21, the two sides held a fourth round of talks. Iraqi officials said that the meeting was held in Baghdad, but the Saudi foreign minister did not specify a location.
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, 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.
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.”
May 7: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, welcomed the Iranian-Saudi dialogue. “We support any Iranian dialogue with international, regional or Arab powers,“ Nasrallah said in a speech. “We consider it as helpful to calming tension in the region.“ Hezbollah has received military and financial support from Iran since its formation in the 1980s.
May 10: Iran confirmed that it was holding talks with Saudi Arabia. “We welcome resolving of the issues that have existed between the two countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said during a weekly press conference. “We will use our best efforts in this regard.”
May 12: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran was "ready for close ties with Saudi Arabia" and that greater cooperation could help stabilize the region, including Yemen. His remarks followed a meeting with President Bashar al Assad during a visit to Syria. “I am sure our Syrian brothers have always welcomed cooperation in the Arab world," Zarif added. "And we are also in that mood.”
May 16: Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said that Iran would work with its neighbors to bolster regional security. "We're ready to participate with the countries of region in a mechanism to create collective security as an infrastructure for development & welfare of their nations," he tweeted.
May 17: President Hassan Rouhani told Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi that he welcomes Baghdad's role as a regional mediator. "Dr. Rouhani also expressed support for Iraq's role in regional interactions as an important member country of the Arab League, welcoming Baghdad's positive role in intervening to resolve disputes among regional states," according to a phone call readout released by the president's office.
May 18: The Saudi foreign minister expressed optimism about the talks with Iran, AFP reported. "We have initiated some exploratory talks," Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said while in Paris. "They are at a very early stage, but we are hopeful." The result of the Iranian presidential election, slated for June 18, was unlikely to affect the talks, he added. "Our understanding of Iran's foreign policy is that it's set by the Supreme Leader," he said. "So we don't think there will be a substantial change."
June 21: Iran’s president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, expressed willingness to mend ties with Saudi Arabia. “I say that there is no obstacle to having a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and relations with all countries. We are ready to reopen embassies,” he said during his first press conference since his election.
July 6: An Iranian government spokesperson said that "good progress" had been achieved in talks with Saudi Arabia but cautioned against expecting a swift diplomatic breakthrough. "In some cases, disputes may have complexities that take time to resolve," Ali Rabiei told reporters.
Oman pushed to host the next round of talks between the two regional rivals in its capital Muscat, The Times of Israel reported. In 2013, the sultanate hosted secret talks between U.S. and Iranian officials that led to two years of negotiations between Iran and the world's six major powers on Tehran's controversial nuclear program. In 2015, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and Iran reached a landmark agreement in which Tehran agreed to significantly curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
August 28: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met his Saudi counterpart Faisal al Saud on the sidelines of the Baghdad summit to discuss resuming bilateral talks. The regional conference included the presidents, kings or foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates; French President Emmanuel Macron also participated. The goal was to ease regional tensions, particularly between Iran and the Arab nations.
August 31: Iran confirmed that it would continue the dialogue with Saudi Arabia. “We have had three rounds of negotiations with the Saudi side, and the fourth round is to be held after the formation of a new Iranian government,” Iran’s ambassador to Iraq said.
September 21: Foreign Minister Abdollahian reportedly met with officials from Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly opening in New York City.
September 22: In his address to the United Nations, King Salman expressed hope that talks with Iran will yield a “tangible outcome to build trust.” He envisioned a relationship based on respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and “cessation from all types of support for terrorist groups and sectarian militias.”
The monarch also highlighted Riyadh’s “grave concern” over Tehran's advancement of its nuclear program. “The Kingdom supports the international efforts aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” he said.
September 23: Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Khatibzadeh said that “serious progress has been made on the subject of security in the Gulf” in talks with Saudi Arabia.
September 24: Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said that the “negotiations with Saudi Arabia are moving forward” and that another round would be held in Baghdad.
September 27: Two Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that Iran and Saudi Arabia had held talks the previous week. They provided few details about the meeting but said it was not held at the ministerial level. On September 29, anonymous local sources told Agence France Presse that the meeting had taken place.
September 29: An anonymous source from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) told Nour News that Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the SNSC, had not met with Adel al Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, in Baghdad. The source was responding to reports circulating on social media about the fourth round of bilateral talks.
October 3: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Iran had held a round of talks on September 21. “These discussions are still in the exploratory phase. We hope they will provide a basis to address unresolved issues between the two sides and we will strive and work to realize that.” He did not specify where the meeting was has held or who participated.
October 4: Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, welcomed the direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
We welcome Saudi Arabia’s announcement of direct talks with the new govt of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We hope dialogue will contribute to de-escalation of tensions & address long-standing regional concerns. Full, mutual return to #JCPOA would support these regional efforts.— Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley (@USEnvoyIran) October 4, 2021