Iraq hosted Iranian-Saudi talks 'more than once' to defuse tension, says president

Barham Salih said Baghdad is bringing conflicting parties together as it suffers from their repercussions

FILE PHOTO: Iraqi President Barham Salih speaks during a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019. Christophe Ena/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Iraq has hosted talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia "more than once" as it attempts to take up the role of mediator to defuse tension in the region, President Barham Salih said on Wednesday.

A first round of direct, face-to-face discussions between rivals Riyadh and Tehran was hosted in Baghdad in early April, signalling a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that has spilt into neighbouring countries.

Those were the only talks reported at the time, but Mr Salih confirmed more had taken place.

“Iraq hosted more than one round of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are ongoing, important and of major significance,” Mr Salih said during a virtual event hosted by the Beirut Institute, a think tank.

He gave no further information.

"Iraq is suffering from the repercussions of regional tensions and we are trying to bring the conflicting parties together," he said.

Mr Salih said Iraq "is essentially the heartland of this neighbourhood."

"This is where regional dynamics were defined. When Iraq was weak, compromised, engulfed, the entire neighbourhood entered the conflict. It was not only Iraq who suffered; it was everybody."

The hosting of Saudi-Iran talks is also a significant step for Iraq, which has ties to both the US and Iran and has often borne the brunt of the Saudi-Iran rivalry.

The main focus of the talks between Tehran and Riyadh has been Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia is battling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The conflict has escalated in recent months, with the Houthis ramping up drone and missile attacks on the kingdom.

“We all want to see an end to the conflict in Yemen. It's a humanitarian catastrophe and also a security problem for the entire neighbourhood. We support the initiative of Saudi Arabia on peace in Yemen,” Mr Salih said.

Relations between Riyadh and Baghdad have brightened in recent few years.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi visited Saudi Arabia several weeks ago and dozens of agreements were signed between the two countries.

During the visit, Saudi Arabia agreed to contribute $3 billion to an investment fund for Iraq. The joint fund will boost investment in the country with participation from the private sector of both countries.
However, Mr Salih said there are "people and groups who want to undermine the relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia".

“Those of us in charge today are adamant to have the best of relations with our neighbours. What has happened with our Saudi neighbours has been remarkable,” he said.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals.

Their ties were cut in 2016 when Riyadh removed its diplomats after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in retaliation for the kingdom’s executing Shiite cleric Nimr Al Nimr.

Those posts have remained closed ever since.

At the time, Iraq offered itself as a possible mediator between the two countries.

The talks in Baghdad have occurred while the US is attempting to engage in indirect negotiations in Vienna for a possible return to a nuclear deal with Iran.

In 2018, former president Donald Trump withdrew from the international deal, which aims to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, and imposed harsh economic sanctions on the country, which increased tension across the Middle East.

The situation deteriorated further after the US assassinated Iran's top general, Qassem Suleimani, in 2020 in Baghdad.

In retaliation, militia groups backed by Iran have continued to fire rockets at Iraqi military bases hosting US and foreign troops.

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