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Iraqi Mediators Join Iran-Saudi Talks on Normalizing Relations

FILE - Iran's national flag flutters in the wind as the Milad telecommunications tower and buildings are seen in the background, Tehran, Iran, March 31, 2020.
FILE - Iran's national flag flutters in the wind as the Milad telecommunications tower and buildings are seen in the background, Tehran, Iran, March 31, 2020.

In recent months, Iraqi mediators have been working patiently behind the scenes to try to bring about a diplomatic rapprochement between long-time adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia. No immediate breakthrough appears on the horizon, though.

Iraqi President Barham Salih has told Arab media that improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be beneficial for Baghdad and the rest of the region.

"For Iraq to be able to play that convenient role between these regional actors is important,” he said. “The theme is that a stable, sovereign Iraq is a common interest of our neighbors. Instead of Iran being a source of instability, let it be the common, binding theme for bringing the region together."

The comments come amid reports that Saudi intelligence chief Khaled al Hmeidan met with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards "Quds Forces" leader Ismail Qa'ani in Baghdad last month. It was not clear what progress was made, if any.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been battling each other through their regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen for a number of years.

Separately, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan al Saud has told journalists that -- among other things -- Riyadh wants Tehran to resume compliance with key facets of the 2015 nuclear accord with the five permanent United Nations Security Council member states, plus Germany (G5+1). The agreement was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

"We hope that we will see an Iran that comes back into compliance and that it needs to address the concerns that we have both about the deficiencies in the previous JCPOA structure, but also of course regional stability and ballistic missiles and other issues," he said.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Retired Columbia University professor and former U.S. diplomat Gary Sick told VOA he thinks that it's "always a positive sign" when Iran and Saudi Arabia are negotiating, but that he does not anticipate any "immediate breakthrough."

"Although we apparently had one or two meetings between the Iranians and the Saudis, the progress, if any, has been extremely glacial and I certainly don't think that this is going to result in an embrace between these two rival powers anywhere in the near future,” he said.

Washington-based Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik tells VOA that he thinks part of the incentive to find a working arrangement between Saudi Arabia and Iran revolves around the United States shifting its focus of attention from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region.

"Saudi Arabia and Iran," he says, "are attempting to find ways to cooperate in a non-political, non-religious manner...(in domains which include) transportation, entertainment, investment and family relations (for a better) future." He adds that both Iraq and Oman are involved in the talks and that Qatar "wants to get involved, too."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told journalists during a visit to the Syrian capital, Damascus, last week that he would like to see a normalization of ties between Tehran and Riyadh.

"We certainly are ready and have always been ready for close ties with Saudi Arabia. ... We've had some contacts with Saudi Arabia and we hope that these contacts will come to fruition through greater cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia," he said.

Former diplomat Sick says he was "surprised" to see Iraq leading efforts to mediate an accord between the two rivals of the Islamic world but points out that Tehran claimed its late military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, killed by a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in 2020 - was carrying a message to Saudi Arabia when he died.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to replace Israel with Iran in the headline. VOA regrets the error.