Saudi Arabia, Iran unite to reduce tensions in Middle East: NPR
Saudi Arabia and Iran have had talks in the Middle East. Both sides say there are many contentious issues to be addressed.
HOST SCOTT SIMON:
As the conflict between Hamas and Israel continues, there is a potentially significant shift between two other adversaries in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have held secret talks in an attempt to reduce tensions. Now, those discussions are in their infancy, and as NPR’s Jackie Northam reports, there are a lot of long-simmering controversial issues that need to be resolved.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Just over three years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, compared Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler and rejected any idea of speaking with Tehran. Compare that to an interview the Crown Prince recently gave to Al Arabiya TV channel, where he took on a much more conciliatory tone.
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MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: (Speaking Arabic).
NORTHAM: The crown prince said while opposing some negative behavior from Iran, he hoped the two countries could have good relations. By the time the interview aired, high-level talks negotiated by Iraq had already started.
SANAM VAKIL: There have been changes in the region that have forced Riyadh to reconsider its position vis-à-vis Iran. And I think that’s why we are where we are today.
NORTH: Sanam Vakil is deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. She says there are several reasons for Saudi Arabia’s change of heart – a faltering economy, the pandemic and a major attack by Iran targeting oil giant Aramco.
VAKIL: I think it was a really important awakening moment that made Saudi Arabia realize that regional instability could impact national goals and especially economic goals, which are so critical for MBS, the leadership of the crown prince.
NORTHAM: And then there’s Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has gotten bogged down in the fight against the Iran-backed Houthis. Yasmine Farouk, visiting researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Houthis also launched missiles at the kingdom.
YASMINE FAROUK: The attacks in Yemen have been very, very intense since the start of the year, and the Saudis need this to stop. They do not have the military capacity to stop it on their own.
NORTHAM: That’s why the Saudis want to talk with the Iranians. Ali Vaez, who heads the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also been keen to speak with the Saudis since coming to power in 2013.
ALI VAEZ: One of his main items on the foreign policy agenda was to continue detente with Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis weren’t ready until, I would say, close enough to the election of President Biden.
NORTHAM: Who made it clear that Saudi Arabia will not have the same blank check relationship as under former President Donald Trump. The administration halted arms sales to the kingdom and linked the crown prince to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Vaez says that US policy towards Iran has also changed.
VAEZ: The Biden administration is trying to revive the nuclear deal and is less hostile towards Iran and pursues a much more balanced approach towards the region. And as a result, the Saudis decided to get ahead and negotiate with the Iranians themselves rather than being left behind.
NORTH: Iranian and Saudi officials say two official meetings between intelligence and government figures have taken place so far. Vakil from Chatham House again.
VAKIL: The fact that the security establishment in both countries was involved in these talks is testament to the investment of Tehran and Riyadh in seizing this as an opportunity.
NORTHAM: Still, the fledgling talks are extremely fragile, and any change in the dynamics of the region has the potential to derail them, such as the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas, which is backed by Iran. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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