Saudi Arabia's MBS Wants 'Good' Relations with Iran as Rivals Reportedly Talk in Iraq

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has expressed his desire to see improved ties with Iran amid widespread reports that the two countries were engaged in a dialogue hosted by their mutual neighbor, Iraq.

Asked by Saudi television host Abdullah al-Mudaifer about the prospect for ties between Riyadh and Tehran, Crown Prince Mohammad replied, "In the end, Iran is a neighboring country, we all aspire to establish a good and distinguished relationship with Iran."

"We do not want the situation of Iran to be difficult, on the contrary, we want a prosperous Iran," the royal added. "We have interests in it and it has interests in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to push the world and the region to prosperity."

At the same time, he took note of outstanding issues between the two nations.

"Our problems are with Iran's negative behavior, whether through its nuclear program, its support for outlaw militias in some countries in the region, or its ballistic missile program."

Still, he said these areas of contention were being addressed.

"We are working today with our partners in the world to find solutions to these problems and we hope to overcome them and that our relations will be good and positive for the benefit of all."

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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with the US secretary of state in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The comments come amid reports last week of secret talks in Baghdad between representatives of Riyadh and Tehran, confirmed to Financial Times, Reuters and Agence France-Presse by unnamed officials. At the same time, unnamed sources from Saudi Arabia and Iran denied the talks to Saudi Arabia's Arab News and Lebanon's Al Mayadeen outlet, respectively.

The Saudi crown prince's latest remarks came a day after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited the Iraqi capital and met top officials and influential figures in an effort to emphasize stronger ties between the two countries, and to praise Iraq's efforts in mediating among regional powers.

"We welcome the important role of Iraq in the region," Zarif said Monday during a press conference alongside his Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, adding that he hoped this would lead to more positive developments.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry readout described Zarif as having "affirmed his country's keenness to deepen the ties of relations between the two countries, expressing his appreciation for Iraq's stances aimed at pushing forward the option of alleviating and avoiding escalation in the region" during his talks with Hussein.

After speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi leader's office said Tehran's top diplomat "pointed to the importance of the role" played by both Iraq's government and Kadhemi himself, "whether at the level of the relationship between the two countries or at the level of regional issues more broadly, and the role of Iraq in adopting the policy of dialogue and calm for the sake of security, stability and peace in the region."

Iraqi President Barham Salih also discussed with Zarif a number of ways the two nations could benefit from working closely together in various sectors, and said Baghdad had adopted "a policy of openness" in order "to deal with its regional and international environment aims at building balanced relations supporting efforts to ease tensions and defuse crises," according to his office.

"Building a capable, stable and sovereign Iraq is in the common interest of all the states of the region as it is an essential pillar to promote regional peace and stability," a presidential readout read, "and it is a platform for the action of a regional system that brings close attention towards the common security issues, economy, protection of the environment as well as enhancing opportunities for developments which would bring the benefit to the all the states of the region and their peoples."

Zarif, for his part, shared his message on social media following what he described as "excellent talks" in Iraq, where he "emphasized that Iran's priority is its neighbors."

"We welcome Iraq's pivotal role in the region," Zarif wrote.

Last week, Iranian ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi also touched upon the issue of Iraq's mediation without explicitly naming Saudi Arabia.

"The Islamic Republic supports Baghdad's mediation to bring Tehran closer to countries with which we have faced challenges or with which ties have cooled, and Iraqi officials have been notified of this," Masjedi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

A day earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh commented directly on the reports of Iran-Saudi talks. He neither confirmed nor denied they took place, but said Tehran was open to such dialogue.

"We have seen these press reports," Khatibzadeh told reporters at the time. "Conflicting quotes have been reported in these reports. The Islamic Republic of Iran has always welcomed dialogue with the Saudi kingdom and considered it in the interest of the peoples of the two countries as well as regional peace and stability."

He later told listeners on the Clubhouse app that there was a "will" among Iranian officials to reestablish ties with Saudi Arabia, and that the two countries had much to discuss, including the ongoing war in Yemen, where they back opposing sides.

Crown Prince Mohammed said during his interview aired Tuesday that he hoped the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, rebel movement his kingdom accuses Iran of backing in a civil war with the Saudi-backed government would sit "at the negotiating table with all Yemeni parties to preserve the rights of everyone and guarantee the interests of the countries of the region."

President Joe Biden announced in February that he would end support for Saudi Arabia's offensive operations in Yemen amid human rights concerns, and has pledged renewed efforts to end the six-year conflict there.

Crown Prince Mohammed said his country remained aligned with Washington on "about 90%" of issues, and was actively working to reduce the risks posed by the remainder.

As speculation over potential renewed Iran-Saudi contacts mounted, signs of potential rapprochement across rival lines were seen elsewhere across the Middle East as well. As that Zarif wrapped up his visit to Qatar on Monday, the country's monarch, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, received a letter of invitation from Saudi King Salman, marking the first such overture since Riyadh led a quartet of regional partners to sever relations and boycott Doha in mid-2017.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut off Qatar over allegations that it was sponsoring terrorism and had too close ties to Iran. The move came about a year and a half after Saudi Arabia ceased ended its relationship with Iran following a rapid uptick in tensions that saw Iranian protesters torch Riyadh's embassy in Tehran amid outrage over the kingdom's execution of an influential Shiite Muslim cleric.

Saudi Arabia went on to play a key role in former President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign in which he saw sought to leverage regional partnerships to isolate Iran, reversing the effects of a nuclear deal negotiated by Washington and Iran alongside other major powers in 2015.

Biden, who was vice president when former President Barack Obama negotiated the nuclear agreement, has pursued steps to reenter the agreement since taking office in January, but has called on Iran to first reinstitute limits on uranium enrichment before his administration lifted unilateral, Trump-era sanctions. Efforts to coordinate a U.S. return to the accord are currently playing out among its signatories in the Austrian capital of Vienna.