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Iraqi president confirms Baghdad hosted Saudi-Iranian talks 'more than once'

President Barham Salih said the first round of talks occurred in early April, which he described as 'important and significant.'
Saudi and Iranian flags

Iraqi President Barham Salih confirmed Wednesday that Baghdad has hosted more than one round of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in what marks the first official acknowledgment of Iraqi mediation in the regional dispute. 

Reuters reported that Salih revealed the Saudi-Iran talks during a live interview with the Beirut Institute think tank, saying the discussions first took place early last month and have occurred “more than once.” He didn’t comment further on the nature of the talks, adding only that they were “important and significant.”

The two regional powerhouses have long been at odds and have competed for influence in various proxy wars across the Middle East. In 2016, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran following violent protests at its embassy in Iran, which were triggered by Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric.

The Financial Times first reported on direct talks between senior Saudi and Iranian officials in Iraq, which is home to many Iran-backed militia groups. The April 9 meeting was reportedly mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad. 

The New York Times reported that Saudi intelligence chief Khalid al-Homeidan and Saeed Iravani, the deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, were among the participants. The news outlet's Iranian and Iraqi sources said another round of talks in Baghdad, possibly between ambassadors, is planned for May.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran has publicly confirmed participation in the talks, but the Saudi crown prince recently raised eyebrows by saying the kingdom is seeking a “good and positive relationship” with Iran. 

“Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a rare TV interview last week. “We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow.” 

The war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition against Houthi rebels backed by Tehran, was reportedly among the topics discussed in the Baghdad meeting. In recent months, the Houthi rebels have rejected a US-backed cease-fire plan offered by Riyadh and increased their missile and armed drone attacks on southern Saudi Arabia. 

The possible detente comes as the Joe Biden administration negotiates an American return to the landmark Iranian nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia staunchly opposed when it was signed in 2015. In an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the reported Saudi-Iranian talks as a positive development.

"Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That's another question," he said. "But talking, trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there's a modus vivendi, trying to get countries to take actions on things they're doing that you don't like — that's good, that's positive."