Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers attend regional summit

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Middle East Political and Social Update

On Saturday, senior officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran attended a regional summit together for the first time in more than five years as they are stepping up efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East.

The foreign ministers of the two countries severed diplomatic relations in early 2016. They gathered in Baghdad for a meeting ostensibly to win support for Iraq. But it is also seen as an important barometer of efforts to ease the soaring hostilities during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Other leaders and officials attending the meeting included leaders and officials from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the two countries whose relations have been particularly bad in recent years, and the heads of two hostile countries, Qatar and Egypt.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who supported the chairmanship of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadimi, also attended the meeting.

“This is the first step, not something that can solve the Iraq issue or the Middle East issue by itself,” a senior Iraqi official told the Financial Times before the meeting. “This is to get people to sit around the table and create an atmosphere where you can have a conversation. Then we might be able to raise the bar in subsequent meetings.”

Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the world powers, and impose waves of severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic, intensifying the long-term relationship between Tehran and its Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There is hostility, the latter supports Trump.

But Arab officials and analysts say that the election of US President Joe Biden, coupled with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, has caused regional leaders to readjust their foreign policies and pay more attention to domestic issues.

Five years ago, the execution of a high-ranking Shiite priest in Saudi Arabia triggered protests, the Saudi embassy in Iran was looted, and Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic relations.

After Riyadh supported Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, the hostility between the two intensified. In September 2019, US and Saudi officials accused Tehran of launching missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, which temporarily halted its crude oil production.

But measures to ease tensions between the enemies began in April, when Iraq hosted secret talks between Saudi and Iranian officials.

Officials said that the reconciliation was temporary, and the talks focused on the six years of civil war in Yemen that Iran-backed Houthi rebels fought in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition that intervened militaryly in the conflict in 2015 to counter the Houthi forces. Riyadh accused Tehran of providing weapons to the rebels, including missiles and drones launched into the country.

But the diplomat said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mohammed bin Salman) is the country’s day-to-day ruler and he has become more serious about withdrawing from the war because of his ambitions to modernize the country and reduce dependence on oil. Ambitious plan.

In January this year, Prince Mohammed also promoted the decision to lift the regional embargo imposed by Riyadh and its allies on Qatar for more than three years. This dispute brought the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-Egypt-Bahrain axis into conflict with the Qatar-Turkey alliance.

Analysts said that after Biden promised to reassess the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and criticized the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018, Prince Mohammed hopes to win some credibility in Washington, partly because of the lifting of the embargo.

Biden also promised that if Tehran resumes full compliance with the agreement, he will rejoin the agreement and lift the sanctions, thereby reversing Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear agreement.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline clergyman who took office this month, said he will continue negotiations to restore the agreement. But he hinted that regional issues will become the focus of his foreign policy and promised to extend a “hand of friendship” to Iran’s neighbors.

However, analysts warn that any change is driven by pragmatism and remains fragile.

“There is this kind of reconciliation and easing the situation. But we are still in the first five minutes, and anything that might destroy it can happen,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the UAE. “This is promising, but we should be cautious and not jump to conclusions that the region does not have all these profound historical problems.”

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