Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been invited to talks with Saudi Arabia. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)
DUBAI — Saudi Arabia has extended an invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit the kingdom, Reuters reported today.
According to analysts, the invitation is an indication that political hardliners within the Saudi government have stepped back and allowed for moderates to push their agenda.
Today, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference that Zarif had been given an invitation to the kingdom but that despite Iran’s past declarations of a wish to improve ties, the visit had not transpired. He did not say when Riyadh issued the invitation or if Iran had formally responded, Reuters reported.
“Any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbor, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them,” he said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has adopted a conciliatory tone toward Tehran’s neighbors since taking office last year, but while Zarif has visited other gulf Arab states, he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia.
Relations between Iran and most of its gulf Arab neighbors have been improving since Tehran agreed to preliminary limits on its nuclear activity last year, but ties with arch-rival Saudi Arabia remained chilly.
“There was a drawback of the hardliners camp within the Saudi government, which was led by Prince Bandar, and this has allowed for the moderate camp to engage,” said political analyst Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.
Abdullah added that the Saudi government must have realized that the actions by the hardliner camp were not helping, citing Syria as the example.
“A change within the Saudi leadership has occurred and the hardliners and moderates have met to realign the policies,” he added.
Since the break of the Syrian crisis Saudi officials have been suspicious and accused Iran of being “an occupying power” in Syria, where they describe Assad as carrying out genocide against the country’s civilian population via air strikes in urban areas.
“Our hope is that Iran becomes part of the effort to make the region as safe and as prosperous as possible and not become part of the problem,” the Saudi foreign minister said.
Still, the invitation was to be expected, Abdullah said, because after the change of policy and regime in Iran, engagement developed with Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman. The Saudis moved slower, but it was inevitable, he said.
“This is significant as this is trying to bridge a gap in the relations between the two countries,” Theodore Karasik, director of research and analysis at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said.
“The nuclear talks are about to start again and two weeks are left until the Syrian presidential elections,” he added.
Karasik said that Riyadh wants to talk to Iran about these two critical security issues.
Earlier this year, former Iranian President Akbar Hashimi Rafsangani reportedly engaged in back channel talks with King Abdullah.
“Perhaps the Rafsangani back channel is working with the Saudi elites at this juncture,” Karasik said.
“The Saudis are playing realpolitik and clearly recognize they need to talk to Tehran because of Syria.”
Abdullah said there is much activity behind the scenes, but the depth and strength of these contacts are not clear.
He added that the recent large-scale Saudi military exercise was not a message to Iran but to calm the kingdom.
“The military show was important, it came possibly as an excuse for the extension of the invitation,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia, after the exercise, is coming from the side of power and it has shown that the firepower it poses can deal with any threat.”
Now what remains is when Zarif would visit and what would be discussed.
Karasik said: “Due to the fact that Iran think its a world power because of the pending nuclear agreement, Riyadh has to open a line directly to Zarif to gather and discuss what comes next in the region.”