Middle East News: Iraq seeks to thaw Saudi-Iran ties

Iraq has invited Iran and Gulf Arab states to a summit in Baghdad with the objective of calming tensions.
Officials say the meeting, which will also discuss the war in Yemen, Lebanon’s collapse and a regional water crisis, could take a step towards Saudi-Iranian rapprochement even though they have yet to say what representation they will send.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi has also invited Gulf allies Egypt and Jordan as well as Turkey and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is co-organising the summit, expected to be held on Saturday.

Macron and Kadhimi want to reduce regional tension by fostering dialogue, including on security, said a French presidential source. “The aim is to initiate something here and to continue (it) after this conference,” the source said.

Strains between Saudi Arabia and Iran worsened after a 2019 assault on Saudi oil plants that briefly knocked out half of Saudi oil production. Riyadh blamed the attack on Iran.

Riyadh sees engagement as a way to contain tensions without abandoning its security concerns over attacks it blames on Iran and its allies.

Baghdad hopes Iran’s new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi will attend the meeting and expect ministers from Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join.

“Even if we bring the foreign ministers together at one table this could be considered a breakthrough to end the tensions between Iranians and the Gulf Arabs,” an official close to Kadhimi said.

Another factor militating in favour of dialogue is the Afghan crisis. Gulf Arabs are concerned about the chaotic end to Washington’s two-decade war in Afghanistan, with the hardline Islamist Taliban having regained power this month as foreign forces aim to complete their withdrawal by August 31.

“The prospect of regional conflict, coupled with their perception of Washington as unreliable, have...prompted the Saudis and Emiratis to pursue a limited, tactical, bilateral de-escalation with Tehran,” the International Crisis Group think tank said in a report.

A politician close to the premier said Iraq, which hosted the private meetings earlier this year between Saudi and Iranian officials, had received “positive signals” from Tehran and Gulf states that they were ready for more direct discussions.

Saudi-Iranian dialogue launched in April as global powers held negotiations on reviving their 2015 nuclear pact with Iran, which Riyadh and its allies opposed for not tackling Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and regional proxies.

Regional sources said it was premature for a breakthrough, with an Iranian source saying progress would likely hinge on the nuclear talks in Vienna. Parties involved in those talks have yet to say when they will resume.

Riyadh says it wants “verifiable deeds” from Iran. Earlier this month, the Saudi foreign minister said an “emboldened” Iran was acting in a negative manner around the Middle East including in Yemen and Lebanon and in regional waters.