Iran Open to Saudi Talks as Iraq Pushes Mediation to Ease Feud

Iran said on Monday it would welcome any talks with Saudi Arabia after Iraq intensified its mediation between the feuding Middle Eastern powers at a critical juncture.

Tehran sees dialog with the kingdom as “beneficial to the people of both countries and regional peace and stability,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

His comments were echoed by a senior government official in neighboring Iraq, who said Baghdad had pushed for indirect and unofficial talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which cut diplomatic ties in 2016, because of the situation in the region, referring to tensions that have roiled oil markets and fueled wars from Syria to Yemen.

Overcoming years of conflict is likely to take time but even a partial lowering of the temperature could catalyze other major diplomatic efforts toward improving stability in the Persian Gulf.

World powers are meeting in Vienna with Iran as they seek to revive a 2015 deal that reined in Tehran’s nuclear work in return for sanctions relief. As that accord collapsed following then-President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S., proxy conflict between Tehran and Riyadh escalated and threatened to tip the region into a broader war.

The U.S. and Iran appeared to edge closer toward ending their standoff over the pact in recent days. Negotiators, which include the European Union, Russia and China are now in the slow, difficult process of hammering out possible technical aspects of a future deal, including how to lift U.S. sanctions while bringing Iran’s enrichment of uranium -- which accelerated alarmingly last week -- back into compliance.

A Saudi intelligence delegation visited Baghdad recently as part of the process to mend bridges between Riyadh and Tehran, the Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity about the development which was first reported in the Financial Times on Sunday. Saudi Arabia hasn’t commented since the report, which cited a senior Saudi official denying any talks with Iran had taken place.

In Iran, Khatibzadeh also declined to comment on the newspaper’s story at a news conference on Monday but used conciliatory language when referring to Saudi Arabia. Iran has wielded substantial political power in Baghdad for nearly two decades as the country was run by successive Shiite Muslim-led governments following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

While Iraq wants the kingdom and Iran to start direct talks, the two nations think that’s premature and want to test the waters first by seeking progress on ending Yemen’s war, the Iraqi official said.

The recent talks in Baghdad centered around a Saudi-proposed cease-fire plan for the conflict, where Riyadh leads a military coalition battling Iran-backed Houthi fighters who have claimed attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

There will be another round of meetings in order to build confidence and start patching up relations, the official said.

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