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[10/7/2019]

EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia gives green light for talks with Iran  

EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia gives 'green light' for talks with Iran

Official in Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's office confirms Baghdad has channels with both sides and is seeking to arrange meeting

Adel Abdul Mahdi met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last week (SPA)

By Mustafa Abu Sneineh , Simon Hooper

Published date: 1 October 2019

Saudi Arabia has given a green light to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to arrange a meeting with Iran as a first step towards de-escalating tensions in the region, Middle East Eye can reveal.

Abbas al-Hasnawi, an official in the prime minister's office, told MEE on Tuesday that Abdul Mahdi was mediating between the leaderships in Riyadh and Tehran and had communicated each side's conditions for talks to the other.

Hasnawi was speaking after a spokesperson for the Iranian government said on Monday that Saudi Arabia had sent messages to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani via “the leaders of some countries”.

Hasnawi confirmed to MEE that Abdul Mahdi was acting as an intermediary with the aim of easing tensions since attacks on Saudi oil facilities blamed on Iran earlier this month appeared to have tilted the Gulf rivals closer to open conflict.

'Channels with both sides'

"The Iraqi leadership has channels with both sides. Our Sunni brothers [in the government] liaise with the Saudis and our Shia brothers with the Iranians," he said.

"The Saudis have conditions before the negotiations process starts and the same with Iranians. We have liaised these conditions to each side. It is not an easy task to get together two opposite sides in terms of their ideology, sect and their alliances in the region."

Hasnawi said Abdul Mahdi had called for a meeting between Saudi Arabia and Iran which the Iraqi government would supervise and mediate, with Baghdad as its preferred venue.

"The Saudis have given the green light in this matter, and Mr Abdul Mahdi is working on it," said Hasnawi, adding that Saudi Arabia, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had "calmed their rhetoric" in recent days.

Abdul Mahdi was last week in Jeddah for talks with the Saudi crown prince.

Hasnawi said that the US government had also approved negotiations between the two sides. Falih Alfayyadh, Iraq's advisor for national security, is currently in Washington to discuss a timeline for the meetings, he added.

"If there will be a potential deal in the region that includes Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the Americans have no problem with that," Hasnawi said.

Baghdad 'the best place'

Hasnawi said Abdul Mahdi hoped to host a meeting in Baghdad but a location had yet to be agreed.

"Baghdad is the best place for this meeting, but I can’t confirm it will be. In the beginning, there will be meetings between officials of both countries, and then a deal will be made. Leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran will meet to sign it."

'Saudi Arabia’s conditions are that Iran minimise its role in Yemen and Syria and stop supporting armed groups such as the Houthis'

- Abbas al-Hasnawi, Iraqi official

Hasnawi said that both sides had set out conditions as a starting point for negotiations.

"Saudi Arabia’s conditions are that Iran minimise its role in Yemen and Syria and stop supporting armed groups such as the Houthis. It also asks the Syrian regime to solve its problems with the Syrian opposition groups, and to write a constitution for Syria with all parties agreeing on it," he said.

The back-channel contacts between Riyadh and Tehran follow this month's devastating attacks on Saudi oil fields, which Saudi Arabia and the US have blamed on Iran.

Iran denies involvement in the attacks, which were initially claimed by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

However, Iraqi security sources told MEE at the time that the attacks were launched from bases in southern Iraq controlled by Iranian-backed militias.

But leaders in both Saudi Arabia and Iran have indicated in recent days that their countries are open to talks aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.

Political solution preferable

In an interview with the CBS network broadcast on Sunday, Mohammed bin Salman said that “a political and peaceful solution is much better than a military one”, calling on Iran to end its support for the Houthis in Yemen.

He suggested that a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would mean the “total collapse of the global economy”.

On Tuesday, Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani told Al Jazeera that Iran welcomed the crown prince’s apparent willingness to talk.

“We welcome Mohammed bin Salman being quoted as saying he wants to resolve issues through talks with Tehran," Larijani was quoted as saying.

Iran’s foreign ministry has also suggested it is open to multilateral talks involving the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s key regional ally.

“We are ready to hold talks with countries, especially the Emirates, in a group or separately and eliminate the misunderstandings,” foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said in a weekly press conference.

'Between the rock and a hard place'

Abdul Mahdi has been working for months to prevent his country becoming a battleground for a proxy war between the US and Iran.

According to Iraqi security sources spoken to by MEE, the US military earlier this year signalled its intention to him to strike an air field held by Iraq's Kataeb Hezbollah militia after drone strikes on oil facilities in the Gulf.

Abdul Mahdi was reported by witnesses to the exchange to have told the Americans that he could not stop them striking wherever they wanted, but neither could he prevent retaliatory strikes by Iranian backed militias on US troops and bases in Iraq.

The US strike on Iraqi Hezbollah never took place. Instead, the US allowed Israel to use its drones from SDF bases in northeastern Syria, an Iraqi intelligence source said.

In August, Abdul Mahdi came under huge pressure to publicly accuse Israel of launching drones to attack targets on Iraqi terrritory.

“Our prime minister is between the rock and a hard place,” the intelligence source told MEE.

“He told both the Iranians and the Americans Iraq is exhausted after decades of wars, conflicts and civil war. 

"Dragging it into the centre of the proxy war between Iran on one side and the USA and its regional allies on the other will risk irreparable damage to its stability and unity with huge implications for the whole region."

Speaking to MEE on Tuesday, Hasnawi reiterated those concerns.

"The region can’t withstand another conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is a hazardous region, and it is rich with crude oil, essential to the whole world," he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

 

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