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Saudi Arabia, Iran held direct talks in bid to ease tensions

Talks between the two countries were organized by Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
In this handout provided by the EU Delegation in Vienna, Representatives of the European Union, Iran and others attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 15, 2021, in Vienna, Austria.

Top officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran held talks in Baghdad earlier this month in a bid to ease tensions between the regional rivals.

The talks, first reported by the Financial Times, are thought to be the first direct discussions since Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic ties in 2016. They also come as the US administration under President Joe Biden renews a diplomatic push to end Yemen’s civil war and seeks to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Though the talks held in Baghdad on April 9 were described as positive, no clear outcome was achieved, according to Reuters. One Iranian official described talks as “low-level” and exploratory.

The two sides discussed Yemen’s Houthis targeting Saudi territory with what the United States says is Iranian weapons technology. They also discussed the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon amid that country’s financial collapse.

Iran arms and provides support to the Houthis, Lebanese Hezbollah and a series of Shia militias across Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia has been struck by a series of ballistic missile and drone attacks from the Houthis in Yemen, while Iraqi militias linked to Iran have launched rocket attacks on US-led coalition bases in Iraq.

The talks between Riyadh and Tehran officials were reportedly held at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this month. Iraq’s government also opened channels between Iran and Egypt and Iran and Jordan, according to FT.

The Iran-Saudi talks came just two days after the United States and Iraq held their latest round of “strategic dialogue” to discuss the nature of the two countries’ relations and future of the US-led military presence in Iraq, a vestige of the multinational war against the Islamic State.

The Biden administration is seeking to reduce its military presence in the Middle East in order to focus on deterring China’s increasingly assertive forces in East Asia.

US officials led by Iran envoy Robert Malley have been holding indirect talks with Iranian officials led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna to carve out a path for both Iran and the United States to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Trump administration unilaterally walked out of the agreement in 2018, labeling it insufficient for curtailing Iran’s regional ambitions and replacing it with a campaign of economic sanctions. Iran continued to support fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen amid the deal, passing conventional weapons technology to those proxies and raising serious concern in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Iran began incrementally and publicly violating the nuclear deal’s restrictions in response to the Trump administration’s sanctions.

Biden administration officials have said talks with Iran over returning to the nuclear deal must serve as a basis for follow-on negotiations over its ballistic missile program and efforts to foster and arm regional militias.

Saudi Arabia’s tensions with neighboring Qatar have eased somewhat in recent months after a more than three-year blockade of the tiny Gulf country over its alleged support for Islamist groups.

But tangible progress toward US officials’ longstanding goal of shoring up the Gulf Cooperation Council and building a coalition of Middle Eastern states to stand up to Iran’s assertive posturing in the region remains elusive.

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan agreed to normalize ties with Israel in the Trump administration’s last-minute initiative dubbed the Abraham Accords.

Despite pushback from some lawmakers, the Biden administration has leaned toward fulfilling the Trump administration’s promises made to those countries in order to obtain those agreements, including a transfer of up to 50 advanced F-35 joint strike fighters to the UAE.