Officials from around the Middle East began arriving in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday ahead of a summit aiming to promote peace and reconciliation in the region, including improving ties between arch rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Saturday meeting seeks to give Iraq a “unifying role” to tackle the crises shaking the region, according to sources close to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian left for Iraq to participate in the Baghdad summit, the ministry said. His ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced the departure to the “meeting to support Iraq” in a short statement.
The Islamic republic’s new President Ebrahim Raisi was invited to the Baghdad meeting, but it was not clear if he would attend.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have said they will attend, as has French President Emmanuel Macron, the only official expected from outside the region. Leaders from Saudi Arabia and Turkey were also invited.
Iraq is seeking to establish itself as a mediator between Arab countries and Iran. Baghdad has been brokering talks since April between regional heavyweights Riyadh and Tehran on mending ties severed in 2016.
Raisi, who took office last week, has said he sees “no obstacles” to restoring ties with Riyadh. He has made improving relations with regional countries one of his priorities.
Rivals for regional dominance
Officials say the meeting, which will also discuss the war in Yemen, Lebanon’s economic collapse and a regional water crisis, could take a step towards Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.
Macron and al-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 Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia-Muslim Iran – longtime rivals for regional dominance – worsened after a 2019 assault on Saudi oil plants that briefly knocked out half of Saudi oil production.
Riyadh blamed the attack on Iran, an allegation Tehran denied.
The two countries are aligned with rival forces fighting a war in Yemen and severed their relations in 2016 – although they resumed direct talks in Iraq in April this year.
Riyadh, fearing Washington’s renewed nuclear talks with Iran could lead to an easing of US sanctions on Tehran, sees engagement as a way to contain tensions without abandoning its security concerns over attacks it blames on Iran and its allies.
“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 al-Kadhimi said.
‘Tactical bilateral de-escalation’
A politician close to the prime minister 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.
“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 recent report.
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.
Three other 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 negotiations have yet to say when they will resume.
“We have always welcomed improving ties with regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it is a priority of our President Raisi’s foreign policy. Whether this will happen in Iraq … I seriously doubt it,” said a senior Iranian official.
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.