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BAGHDAD, Sept 27, (AP): Representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia have held a new round of talks in Baghdad, two Iraqi officials said Monday, in the first such meeting between the regional foes since a new president was sworn in in Tehran. The meeting held last week discussed “pending issues between the two countries according to a previously agreed on roadmap, including diplomatic representation between the two countries,” according to one Iraqi official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements, said the meeting was not on a ministerial level, but described the talks as positive. Iraq has recently played the role of mediator between the two regional foes whose rivalry has often played out to deadly consequences in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Multiple rounds of discussions have been held in Baghdad since the first direct talks between Riyadh and Tehran took place in early April. Saudi Arabia has sought talks with Iran as the kingdom tries to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, having lost an unflinching supporter in President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. Iran, meanwhile, appears to have calculated that a gradual detente with Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, will work in its favor during renewed nuclear talks with Washington and world powers. Last month, Baghdad hosted a regional conference that brought together Arab heads of state and senior officials including the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The meeting, meant to ease Mideast tensions, cemented Baghdad’s new role as mediator. The meeting last week is the first since Iranian hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi took office in August. It was not clear how much progress, if any, has been made in the talks. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals.
Relations worsened considerably in 2016, when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for the kingdom executing a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan is traveling to Saudi Arabia on Monday to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the U.S. presses for a cease-fire in the yearslong war between the kingdom and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Sullivan will be the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit Saudi Arabia. Besides seeing the crown prince, often referred to by his initials, MBS, Sullivan is expected to meet with deputy defense minster Khalid bin Salman, a brother to the crown prince, according to two senior administration officials. The officials were not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The White House has resolved bringing an end to perhaps the world’s most complex conflict can’t be done without engaging with the most senior Saudi officials face to face, one senior administration official said.
National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said Sullivan was traveling to Riyadh on Monday and would also visit the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally in the war, but did not provide additional details. Axios first reported that Sullivan was planning on traveling to the region. Sullivan is being dispatched at a moment when the situation in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has further deteriorated. Fighting has intensified in the key city of Marib, as Iran-backed rebels have sought to oust the Saudi-backed government from the oil-rich city in the country’s north. International efforts to end the war have been fruitless.
Tim Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, called out the Houthis in July for continuing “to refuse to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and political talks.” Saudi Arabia offered a cease-fire proposal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels earlier this year as it looked to rehabilitate its image with the Biden administration. The Saudis have drawn international criticism for airstrikes killing civilians and embargoes exacerbating hunger in a nation on the brink of famine. The new U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, recently declared that the country is “stuck in an indefinite state of war” and resuming negotiations to end the more than six-year conflict won’t be easy. Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Iranian-backed Houthis seized Sanaa and began a march south to try to seize the entire country. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen’s internationally recognized government in March 2015.