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Al-Kadhimi Searching For A Breakthrough In Saudi-Iran Talks – OpEd

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By Hassan Al-Mustafa*

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During a meeting with the leaders of various Palestinian factions in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “Iran welcomes the restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia. We welcome the reopening of embassies and the start of political dialogues.” He added: “We also welcome the strengthening and expansion of relations between Tehran and Cairo for the benefit of the region and the Islamic world.”

Amir-Abdollahian’s positive expressions came after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi visited Iran last month, as he was returning from Saudi Arabia after meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It appears that the Iranian foreign minister is seeking to invest in Al-Kadhimi’s efforts to reduce tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Diplomatic relations between the two capitals were severed back in 2016 after a number of Iranians attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad.

In April, the Iranian Nour News agency published a photo of the fifth round of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, which was held in Baghdad under the direct sponsorship of Al-Kadhimi. The photo included the Iraqi prime minister, along with Saudi General Intelligence Directorate Director General Khaled Al-Humaidan and Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Deputy Secretary Saeed Iravani. The picture is clear in its significance. Al-Kadhimi — in person and without anyone acting on his behalf — is following the course of the dialogue between the Kingdom and Iran, as well as handling the security of high-ranking officials from the two countries.

This means: There is an overwhelming Iraqi desire to make the mission a success, the files discussed are still not up to the diplomatic level, and there are issues and problems related to “security,” “good intentions” and “confidence-building,” about which an understanding must be reached before the two countries’ foreign ministers can meet.
Amir-Abdollahian considered the talks between the two countries to be “constructive.” His Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, stated that “progress has been made in negotiations with Iran, but it is not enough.” However, the latter also stressed that “the hands of Riyadh are still stretched out to Tehran.”

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Prince Faisal’s position is an extension of the stance announced by the crown prince in an interview with The Atlantic magazine in March, in which he said: “They (the Iranians) are our neighbors, and will forever be our neighbors. We cannot get rid of them, and they cannot get rid of us. So, it is better for us to resolve our issues and to look for ways in which we can coexist.”

Therefore, there is a common Saudi and Iranian desire to break the deadlock in relations between the two countries, start building confidence and reopen diplomatic missions, which are important steps. If achieved, this would not only be in the interest of Riyadh and Tehran, but also the stability and security of the Arab Gulf and the wider Middle East.

So, if this desire exists, what is it that is delaying the completion of the reconciliation between these two major oil-producing countries?

The restoration of Saudi-Iranian relations is not an easy matter. There have been many thorny issues that have led to suspicion, apprehension, competition and even indirect war, in addition to intelligence work and interference in internal affairs. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of training groups opposed to Riyadh, providing them with logistical expertise, weapons, money and explosives, and supporting them in carrying out acts of violence and terrorism inside Saudi Arabia. These actions have damaged the Kingdom’s national security. This file relates specifically to the IRGC’s support for its armed fundamentalist cells in Gulf states, including Bahrain. If progress is made on this file and the Iranian political leadership gives practical guarantees that it does not support these armed militias, then we can talk about actual progress in the negotiations.

There are files that may constitute an entry point for understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia. One is the arrangements for the Hajj season, for which “the head of the Iranian Hajj and Visit Organization Sadeq Hosseini met with the Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah and discussed ways to raise the quota of Iranian nationals during this year’s Hajj season,” Nour News reported last month.

The energy file, including the OPEC+ alliance and the stability of oil supply, is another field in which understanding can be made away from the political dispute. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman has in the past talked about the respect and cooperation that linked him to former Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, describing him as a “personal friend” and adding: “His friendship has always been considered a purposeful way to allow us to overcome the political difficulties that impede reaching an agreement.”

Everyone agrees on the importance of confronting the terrorism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda and on cooperating in the fight against drug smuggling, which are dangers that threaten both Saudi Arabia and Iran. These are also files that could form solid ground for cooperation, although there are Saudi accusations against Iran that it is using Al-Qaeda as a security and political pressure card by harboring several of the organization’s members and the families of its leaders.

The dangers to the Middle East posed by the Russian-Ukrainian war; the global food crisis; the financial inflation and depressions that are likely to affect the economies of countries bordering the Arabian Gulf; the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the security, political and economic repercussions of the wars in Yemen and Syria should all push these two important countries to try to reach common ground.

Al-Kadhimi is aware of the difficulty of this task and the fact that the negotiations, which he hopes will be successful, may be disrupted at any time, especially due to the faltering nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US in Doha and before that in Vienna.

However, with the respect that Al-Kadhimi has among the Saudi leaders and his acceptance by politicians in Iran, he will seek to achieve a breakthrough because he wants stability and the decline of violence in Iraq. However, this will not happen as long as the Gulf remains tense.

• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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