Diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have a history of vicissitudes, were severed by the Arab kingdom in January 2016 after Iranian protesters, outraged by the Saudi government’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, stormed its embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad.
Now the two regional powers have been in talks over the past several months to restore ties. Three Iranian diplomats have recently arrived in the Saudi city of Jeddah to represent the Islamic Republic in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, Mahmoud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, the spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said he is optimistic that the recent development will be a prelude to the reopening of the two countries’ embassies.
After several rounds of talks, Iran now says three diplomats have flown to Saudi Arabia to represent the Islamic Republic in the OIC. What’s your take on their bilateral efforts to re-establish relations?
Definitely, having diplomatic relations is much better than not having them. Saudi Arbia is one of Iran’s neighboring countries with a significant economic and political position in the region. Iran has always pursued a policy of good-neighborliness, and now, under the government of President Raeisi, a “neighbor-oriented” diplomacy has become one of Iran’s foreign policy priorities. Given the cultural, religious and historical commonalities that the two countries have, they must have come to the conclusion that a lack of diplomatic relations does not serve their interests. Several rounds of talks focused on removing some obstacles to improving ties, and now the negotiations seem to have been successful. The presence of three Iranian diplomats at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah a few days ago should be seen as auspicious.
Do you think that the obstacles to the resumption of ties in the past few years have been more related to domestic factors and policies in both countries or to elements that have had their roots beyond the region?
Both countries have had misunderstandings about each other’s policies but at the same time, factors stemming from outside the region have also been involved. Saudi Arabia is a country that has strategic relations with the West, and is different from Iran in this respect. Tehran believes that if major regional powers cooperate with each other, there will be no need for the presence of foreigners in the region, and they can forge a power bloc themselves. Moreover, regional countries have various economic potentials that can help resolve their economic problems. Iran has repeatedly announced its readiness to assist other regional countries in many fields, including security and economy.
In your opinion, could the arrival of Iranian diplomats in Jeddah be a prelude to the reopening of embassies in the near future?
Yes, I think that dialogue between the two countries was a good move, in principle. The two countries’ embassies are said to be under reconstruction. The presence of these diplomats in Saudi Arabia can also help expedite expert-level negotiations. The discussions could continue at the level of deputy foreign ministers and, finally, the two foreign ministers could meet and talk. The presence of diplomats in Saudi Arabia could be a good prelude and speed up the process for the reopening of embassies.
You pointed to some misunderstandings about policies. Do you think that in the recent talks, these misunderstandings have been addressed and that the two countries have agreed to back down from some of their demands and stances in order to clear the way for improving ties?
The prospects of these talks and bilateral relations are bright. Iran pursues a principle that is to strengthen relations with neighbors. However, it is natural for disagreements to arise between neighbors as you see there are differences of opinion, misunderstandings and complaints between Tehran and Riyadh. Sometimes these grievances and criticisms are made publicly, via the media, and at other times they are not publicized.
Such talks help both sides clearly articulate their stances, demands and criticisms. The two countries did so in the course of the recent talks. Important, however, is the willpower of both sides to move beyond the current situation and arrive at a new one. Therefore, some past events could be ignored if rapprochement is set as a principle. In the realm of politics, one should look to the future, not the past. Iran does not see Saudi Arabia as an enemy.
Some believe that rapprochement could contribute to the reduction of tensions. Do you agree with that?
Generally, the stronger the relationship between regional countries, the lower the level of possible tensions. Tensions in West Asia have largely external roots and are stoked by some trans-regional countries. However, when relations are not normal, some excuses and internal issues may arise that could lead to tensions. Normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also expected to ease tensions, or partially settle disputes, with other regional countries. Since Iran and Saudi Arabia are seen as the two main pillars of power in the region, other countries naturally look at the quality of their relations and can be inspired.
As I said, the principle is the willpower of the two sides to restore relations. With such a will, barriers will be gradually lifted. In his first press conference after the June presidential election, President Raeisi emphasized that neighbors are prioritized in his government’s foreign policy and announced his readiness to resolve issues with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also appears to have come to the conclusion that the two countries have good potentials for cooperation in various fields, and that insisting on disputes will only increase the costs for both sides.