September 24, 2023

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Iran’s foreign minister visits Saudi Arabia as diplomatic thaw continues

Iran’s foreign minister has visited Saudi Arabia, the first such trip in years, marking the continuing thaw in relations between two powers who recently have been locked in destabilising competition.

The visit by Hossein Amir-Abdollahian comes as the countries have been trying to ease tensions including over Iran’s nuclear programme, the Saudi-led war in Yemen and security across the region’s waterways.

Amir-Abdollahian described Thursday’s meeting in the Saudi foreign ministry’s Islamic Solidarity Hall as “a prelude to the meeting of the heads of the two countries”, without specifying when Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, would visit Saudi Arabia at King Salman’s invitation.

“We are sure that these meetings and cooperation will help the unity of the Islamic world,” he said, proposing a “regional dialogue” but providing no details.

Describing progress in the Chinese-mediated detente between Riyadh and Tehran during his visit to the Saudi capital, the Iranian foreign minister told a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan: “Relations between Tehran and Saudi are on the right track and we are witnessing progress,” adding: “The talks were successful.”

Prince Faisal said: “Our meeting today is a continuation of the steps taken towards implementing the agreement to resume diplomatic relations, which represents a pivotal platform in the history of the two countries and the path of regional security.”

In June, Faisal met Iranian officials in Tehran on his first trip to Iran since a China-brokered deal to resume ties between the regional rivals in March.

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.

The last Iranian foreign minister to visit Saudi Arabia on a public trip was Mohammad Javad Zarif, who travelled to the kingdom in 2015 to offer condolences for the death of King Abdullah.

The two countries severed ties in 2016 after Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked during protests over Riyadh’s execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Faisal said the kingdom was keen to follow through with all main points of the China-brokered deal, whether economic or political, and the countries’ ambassadors would start in their positions in their respective embassies after their reopening.

He said Saudi Arabia hoped for a visit from Raisi, who was invited by King Salman bin Abdulaziz in June. Raisi has said he will travel to the kingdom at the “appropriate time”.

Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the visits and the reopening of embassies represented “important confidence-building measures”. She said: “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.”

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has been one of the main focuses of conflict between the two sides, as Iran has backed Houthi rebels. 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, Sana’a.

It also championed the return of Syria, a key Iran ally, to the Arab fold at a summit in May.

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