DUBAI (Dispatches) -- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resigned to the revival of a nuclear pact with Iran they always opposed, are engaging with Tehran to contain tensions.
World powers have been negotiating in Vienna with Iran to revive the 2015 deal. The new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden wants to restore the deal, which Washington abandoned under his predecessor Donald Trump. But its failure to undo the former regime’s wrongs has bedeviled the negotiations.
Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a costly war in Yemen and facing repeated missile and drone attacks on its oil infrastructure.
Persian Gulf officials worry that they lack the same clout with the Biden administration that they had under former president Donald Trump.
Rather than wait for the outcome in Vienna, Riyadh accepted Iraqi overtures in April to host talks between Saudi and Iranian officials, Reuters cited two sources familiar with the matter as saying.
According to the news agency, Iran holds a number of cards which give “a strong bargaining position”, Persian Gulf Research Center’s Abdulaziz Sager, who has been active in past unofficial Saudi-Iran dialogue, said this week.
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is “engaged in efforts to defuse tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran by engaging with Syria,” a Damascus-based Syrian Foreign Ministry official told Al Jazeera.
The official said MBS instructed his team to reassure Syria that he does not want regime change against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the Syrian Foreign Ministry official, the Iranians were “immediately very welcoming to what they heard” about the possibility of the Riyadh-Damascus détente.
Early last month, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief traveled to Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart in a move seen as a precursor to a détente between the two regional foes
Later in May, Syria dispatched its first ministerial delegation in 10 years to Riyadh, led by Tourism Minister Rami Martini, who said at the time that “efforts are being made to upgrade ties with Saudi Arabia, and may soon have positive results.”
Throughout the war on Syria, Saudi Arabia was among the countries that supplied militant groups with finance and weaponry, including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
Al Jazeera quoted a Saudi Foreign Ministry official as saying that “the time has come to accept that Syria, as it is, is an indelible part of the Arab landscape.”
A senior official from the Syrian opposition Free Officer’s Movement also said the “political mood within the House of Saud has changed, many senior royals, particularly Mohammad bin Salman himself, are keen to reengage with Assad.”
“The prevailing attitude can be defined as, ‘times have changed... and the region is transitioning towards a new future, with new geopolitical characteristics,’” the official added.
According to the official, the Saudis have made clear to Damascus that they want Assad to reduce the influence of the Iranians in Syria, but for now they have accepted Iran’s influence as a strategic reality.
“The Saudis acknowledge that the Iranians will continue to have covert political influence in Damascus as they do in Baghdad, but they and the UAE want Assad to pressure the Iranians to at least reduce their build-up of strategic military assets, like the missile storage and production bases,” he claimed.
The UAE, for its part, has already been in regular contact with Iran trying to de-escalate, a third regional source said.
The priority now for Persian Gulf states is to focus on their economies following COVID-19. According to Reuters, Persian Gulf states hope Washington maintains leverage over Tehran by keeping some sanctions.
But they remain skeptical, the agency added. UAE envoy to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba said in April he saw no evidence the nuclear deal would become “a tool where moderates are empowered” in Iran, which holds presidential elections this month.
“But we need to live with them in peace,” Otaiba said.
Last month, Iran confirmed reports of talks with Saudi Arabia, saying the goal of the talks is to secure bilateral and regional interests.
“We have always welcomed such talks in any form or at any level and this is not our new policy, but let us wait and see the outcome of the negotiations and judge accordingly,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
The remarks came days after a Saudi Foreign Ministry official confirmed the talks, saying they were intended to reduce regional tensions.
“As to current Saudi-Iranian talks, they aim to explore ways to reduce tensions in the region,” Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the ministry, said.