Saudi Arabia and Iran are making progress on mending ties, Iran’s foreign minister has said after meeting with his counterpart in Riyadh, as the two regional heavyweights seek to overcome past hostility and boost cooperation.
“Relations between Tehran and Saudi are on the right track and we are witnessing progress,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on Thursday, adding that “the talks were successful”.
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His visit to the kingdom comes months after Prince Faisal met with officials from Iran in Tehran in June on his first trip to the country after a China-brokered deal between the regional rivals in March to restore ties.
Under the deal, Tehran and Riyadh agreed to end a diplomatic rift and re-establish relations following years of hostility that had endangered regional stability in the Gulf, as well as in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia broke ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran following Riyadh’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
“We had good discussions over a broad range of issues during our meetings today,” Amir-Abdollahian said.
Thursday’s meeting in the Saudi foreign ministry’s Islamic Solidarity Hall “will be a prelude to the meeting of the heads of the two countries”, he said.
Prince Faisal said Saudia Arabia hoped to see Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi visit the kingdom following an invitation from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, which he had communicated during the June visit. Raisi has said he would travel to Saudi at the “appropriate time”.
Prince Faisal said the kingdom was keen to follow through with all the main points of the China-brokered deal, both economic and political.
In June, Iran officially reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia and Iranian state media reported earlier this month that the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran had resumed operations.
Its new ambassador, Alireza Enayati, travelled with Amir-Abdollahian to Riyadh on Thursday.
“We look forward to a new phase in our relationship based on our Islamic brotherhood and work towards common interests,” Prince Faisal said, adding that he welcomed Iran’s endorsement of Riyadh’s bid to host Expo 2030.
Prince Faisal also confirmed that the Saudi embassy in Tehran had resumed operations, which he described as “another step in the development of relations between the two countries”.
The visits and the reopening of embassies represent “important confidence-building measures”, said Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“Saudi-Iran rapprochement is still in its early phases, and it’s still very unclear how the two sides will address their many points of friction,” Jacobs said.
“Resuming diplomatic ties and engaging in more dialogue is a good start, but it’s difficult to tell if this will be enough to resolve the long-standing issues in their relationship.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia have backed opposing sides in conflict zones across the Middle East for years, including in Yemen, where in 2015 Riyadh mobilised an international coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who had toppled the internationally recognised government the previous year.
Since the March deal, Saudi Arabia has ramped up a push for peace in Yemen, holding direct talks with Houthi leaders in April in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
It has also championed the return of key Iran ally Syria to the Arab fold at a summit in May.
On Wednesday, Iranian state media said Iranian and Saudi military officials met in Moscow on the sidelines of a security conference.
At the same time, the two sides have exchanged competing statements over a disputed gas field that Saudi Arabia plans to develop jointly with Kuwait.
Iran also wants to explore and exploit the field, known as Arash in Iran and Dorra in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which has long been point of contention between the three countries.
“The dispute over the Dorra-Arash gas field shouldn’t be a major obstacle to improving ties, and it could even be an opportunity for dialogue,” Jacobs said.
“But from the Saudi perspective, they are more concerned about Yemen, threats to maritime security in the Gulf, and regional files like Syria.”
Riyadh is also engaged in negotiations over a possible deal – still widely seen as a long shot – that would see it recognise Israel in exchange for conditions including security guarantees from the United States and concessions from Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Standing next to Prince Faisal on Thursday, Amir-Abdollahian described the conflict as “the most important issue in the Islamic world”, adding: “We continue to support Palestine.”