Saudi, Iran foreign ministers meet in Tehran amid warming ties

It’s the first visit by a Saudi official to Iran in more than seven years, in a rapprochement deal brokered by China.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, and his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, meet in Tehran, Iran, June 17, 2023 [Vahid Salemi/AP Photo]

Tehran, Iran — The foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia have met in Tehran as the longtime rivals seek to end a diplomatic rift and restore ties after seven years of tensions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian welcomed his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, at the foreign ministry on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat also met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who has just finished a tour of Latin America.

The two ministers hailed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which they said would be paramount to improving security across the region.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has never equated security with militarism, and considers security to be a comprehensive concept, which includes political, economic, cultural, trade and social dimensions between all the countries of the region,” Amirabdollahian told a news conference.

He added that he discussed a wide range of issues with Prince Faisal, which included trade ties and joint investments, in addition to accommodating Saudi tourists and pilgrims who may be interested in visiting Iran.

Prince Faisal said that “mutual respect, non-interference in the two countries’ internal affairs and commitment to the United Nations Charter” will be at the centre of bilateral relations going forward, with an eye on securing the interests of both nations.

“I would also like to highlight the two countries’ discussions on cooperation on ensuring maritime security and reducing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari said, “The two countries are serious about resuming diplomatic relations and they want to move forward despite not having any relationship for the past seven years.”

“The area of expansion is not only political but the economic aspect of the relationship with also be very significant. The Iranians are hoping to increase trade with Saudi Arabia to reach $1bn annually. It’s currently at about $15m,” Jabbari said, reporting from Tehran.

The economic incentive is significant, said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy researcher with Lancaster University in the UK.

“I think what the Saudis would get out of this is that they want stability in the region in order to start to build upon the projects and economic vision the country has. I think they realise that these very lofty, ambitious economic projects cannot be obtained within an unstable region,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It’s not enough to just trust each other. Where I think the Saudi-Iranian relations are going are in a sphere where they are both incentivised to de-escalate any tensions should they arise in the future. And conflict is inevitable. But I think it’s the way they address these conflicts and the reasons to de-escalate and that’s where the economic issue [factors in].”

China-brokered deal

The Iranian and Saudi ministers last met in early June in South Africa on the sidelines of a meeting of BRICS, the economic bloc consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

But this is the first visit by a Saudi official to Iran since 2016, when Riyadh broke off ties after its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked following the execution of Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia.

Tehran and Riyadh agreed to reopen their embassies within two months as part of a China-brokered deal signed in Beijing on March 10, but while diplomatic relations have been restored, reopening the embassy buildings has proved more challenging.

Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh on June 6, followed by its consulate general in Jeddah and its mission to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) a day later.

Tehran has reportedly selected Alireza Enayati, a former envoy to Kuwait and a foreign ministry deputy for regional affairs, as its ambassador to the kingdom. But Enayati was absent at the reopening ceremony, and Iran has not confirmed that he has started work at the embassy in Riyadh.

The Iranian embassy was inaugurated by Alireza Bigdeli, a deputy foreign minister for consular affairs, who said, “We are witnessing the opening of a new chapter in bilateral and regional relations.”

Meanwhile, it is unclear when the Saudi embassy will be reopened. Amirabdollahian previously said Saudi Arabia has selected an ambassador to Tehran, but the kingdom has yet to publicly confirm his identity.

Unconfirmed reports indicate a Saudi team has been operating out of a luxury hotel in the Iranian capital for weeks as both sides work on officially reopening the embassy buildings.

The Saudi foreign minister’s visit to Tehran comes a week after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to Riyadh for high-level talks.

Shortly after, it was confirmed that Iraq has been able to repay a considerable $2.7bn of its debts to Iran incurred from importing natural gas.

The US had previously blocked the money based on the sanctions it unilaterally imposed on Iran after then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington has said the funds can only be used “for humanitarian and other non-sanctionable transactions”.

Part of the money was allocated for the expenses of Iranian pilgrims attending the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, while 80 million euros ($87m) was reportedly sent to the Iranian mission at the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank.

Meanwhile, media reports indicate Iran and the US have been holding indirect talks in Oman aimed at reducing tensions, which could potentially lead to deals on Tehran’s nuclear programme, an exchange of prisoners and the release of frozen Iranian funds.

At the same time, the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has begun decreasing tensions across the region, including in Yemen where the two had backed opposing sides in the devastating war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was backed by Tehran, was welcomed back into the Arab League last month. Saudi Arabia, along with several other Arab states, had thrown their weight behind the opposition in Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera