The two rivals held first direct talks in years, but experts say several sticking points remain.

The first direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia offer an opportunity to ease tensions in the Middle East, which has been marred by proxy wars and an economic slowdown perpetuated by a drop in the price of oil, experts say. 

Top officials from the regional rivals met in Iraq on April 9 for the first time since they had severed ties in 2016 when Riyadh executed a Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, prompting violent protests in Iran. 

Tehran is looking forward to restart negotiations over its nuclear programme with the United States while Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from the years-long bloody war in Yemen. 

“I think it’s a very positive sign that they are talking to each other,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa director at the Crisis Group. “But I don’t think these are negotiations. They are exchanging views to see if they can reach some common ground.” 

News about the talks, which haven’t been officially confirmed by Iran or Saudi Arabia, was first reported by the Financial Times. There are indications that the officials involved - including Saudi intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan - will meet again for a follow-up round.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, who went to Saudi Arabia on an  official visit last month, has played a major role in facilitating the talks between the arch-rivals. 

The Yemen conflict is at the heart of the talks. Saudi Arabia shares a border with impoverished Yemen where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have gained an upper hand against a Riyadh-backed government.  

In the last few years, the Houthis have launched repeated drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities including the one in September 2019, which disrupted half of the kingdom’s petroleum supply. 

Houthis have used advanced weapons including drones to hit Saudi oil facilities.
Houthis have used advanced weapons including drones to hit Saudi oil facilities. (AP)

The new US President Joe Biden has been critical of the Saudi use of lethal air power in Yemen unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who looked the other way even as human rights groups repeatedly said that civilians were being killed in Saudi air raids. 

More than 100,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia entered the Yemen conflict in 2015. 

“From the Saudi perspective, the Houthi attacks are getting out of control. It has been an unwinnable war for them. They also realise that the Biden administration wants the Yemen war to come to an end,” says Hiltermann. 

“But the Saudis also want some of their concerns to be addressed - the main one being the Houthis and how Iran brings them to the negotiating table.”

A pending agreement

Another development that has prompted Saudi Arabia and Iran to explore ways of easing tensions has to do with the 2015 nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was signed between Iran and the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. It offered Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme. But former US President Trump withdrew Washington from the agreement and imposed back-breaking sanctions on Iran. 

Now the Biden administration is exploring ways of putting the JCPOA back on track. Last month, the US and Iran held indirect talks in Vienna to see how they can restart the process. 

Riyadh, which had earlier backed Trump over his Iran sanctions, is now expected to refrain from lobbying against the deal. 

Instead, Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) insist that a US deal with Iran goes beyond just the nuclear talks and cover issues such as Tehran’s ballistic missile programme. 

“Obviously the ballistic programme is out of reach for the most part,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at the King’s College London. 

“But they (the Americans) want a solution that at least works in a way that they can send it to the Saudis and other gulf states as a wider agreement beyond the nuclear programme.”  

At the same time, the US has made it clear to the Iranians that its interference in other countries including Yemen can undermine the JCPOA. 

While there’s an expectation that Iran will influence the Houthis to end the war, it’s unclear if its efforts will actually work. 

“Iranians have control but not enough where they can switch off the Houthi activity as they wish,”  says Krieg. 

“Houthis are self contained and self sufficient actors in many ways. Even if the Iranians withdraw entirely from Yemen, the Houthis can continue fighting.”

Source: TRT World