Saudi, Iranian officials held direct talks in Iraq: Report

Media report says first round of talks held in Baghdad earlier this month with the Iraqi PM facilitating the process.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in tit-for-tat attacks for years [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Senior Saudi and Iranian officials held direct talks in a bid to repair relations between the two regional rivals, according to a report in the Financial Times which quoted officials briefed on the discussions.

The first round of the reported talks, held four years after both sides cut off diplomatic ties, took place in Baghdad on April 9 and included discussions about attacks on Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi group.

The unnamed official quoted in the report said the Saudi delegation was led by Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, the kingdom’s intelligence chief, and another round of talks was also scheduled.

There has been no comment from either side following the publishing of the report.

The FT also said that a senior Saudi official denied there had been any talks with Iran.

Lebanon’s pro-Iran Al Mayadeen television channel and Unews news agency on Sunday both cited an Iranian source denying talks with Saudi Arabia.

In recent weeks, Houthi fighters have stepped up missile and drone attacks, often targeting Saudi oil facilities and military points across the kingdom, saying they are in response to deadly Saudi air raids in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of smuggling weapons to the Houthis, who have control the Yemeni capital Sanaa since 2015.

The news comes as US and Iran try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal which Saudi Arabia has opposed.

Riyadh has called for a nuclear deal with stronger parameters and said Gulf states should join any negotiations on the accord to ensure that this time it addresses Iran’s missiles programme and its support for regional proxies.

The US has also pressed for an end to the Yemen conflict, seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The report added that Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited Saudi Arabia late last month and has been facilitating the “process”.

Citing an Iraqi official, FT reported that Baghdad also facilitated “communication channels” for Iran with Egypt and Jordan.

“The [Iraqi] prime minister is very keen to personally play a role in turning Iraq into a bridge between these antagonistic powers in the region,” the official said. “It’s in Iraq’s interest that it can play this role. The more confrontation you have in the region, the more they play out here… and these talks have been taking place.”

Iraq is also home to powerful Iranian-backed militia groups, as well as US troops, and has often been used as a battleground.

In January 2020, a US drone strike killed Iran’s revered general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, pushing Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.

Iran retaliated by targeting an Iraqi military airbase where US troops were stationed.

Another official briefed on the latest talks said Kadhimi has “good links into the Iranian system”, FT reported.

“The new thing is Kadhimi playing this role with Saudi Arabia… It’s a good thing Iraq is playing this role, but it’s very early days.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies