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Senior officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran attended a regional summit together for the first time in more than five years on Saturday as efforts are stepped up to cool tensions in the Middle East.
The foreign ministers from the two nations, which cut diplomatic ties at the beginning of 2016, gathered at the conference in Baghdad that was ostensibly intended to rally support for Iraq. But it was also viewed as an important barometer of efforts to de-escalate hostilities that soared during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Other leaders and officials attending the meeting included those from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have endured a particularly bitter relationship in recent years, as well as the heads of state of Qatar and Egypt, two other states that have been adversaries.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who backed Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s efforts to host the conference, was also present.
“It’s step one, rather than something that in itself is going to solve Iraq’s problems, or the Middle East’s problems,” a senior Iraqi official told the Financial Times ahead of the conference. “This is about bringing people around the table creating an atmosphere where dialogue can take place. Then we can perhaps up the bar in subsequent meetings.”
Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and impose waves of crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic, exacerbated long-running animosity between Tehran and its Gulf rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which backed Trump.
But the election of US President Joe Biden, coupled with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, has caused regional leaders to recalibrate their foreign policies and focus more on domestic issues, Arab officials and analysts say.
Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic ties five years ago after the kingdom’s embassy in Iran was ransacked during protests triggered by the execution of a senior Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia.
Hostilities between the two increased after Riyadh supported Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In September 2019, US and Saudi officials blamed Tehran for a missile and drone attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure, which temporarily knocked out half its crude output.
But moves to ease tensions between the foes began in April when Iraq hosted secret talks between Saudi and Iranian officials.
Officials say rapprochement is tentative, with the talks largely focusing on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fighting a six-year civil war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition that intervened militarily in the conflict in 2015 to counter the Houthis. Riyadh accuses Tehran of supplying weapons to the rebels, including missiles and drones launched into the kingdom.
But diplomats say Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, has become more serious about exiting the war as he focuses on his ambitious plans to modernise his nation and reduce its dependency on oil.
In January, Prince Mohammed also drove the decision to lift a more than three-year regional embargo Riyadh and its allies imposed on Qatar, a dispute that pitted a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-Egypt-Bahrain axis against a Qatar-Turkey alliance.
Analysts said the lifting of the embargo was in part motivated by Prince Mohammed’s desire to gain some credibility with Washington after Biden pledged to reassess US relations with the kingdom and was critical of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
Biden is also hoping to reverse Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear accord after pledging to rejoin the deal and lift sanctions if Tehran returns to full compliance with the agreement.
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who took office this month, has said he will continue negotiations to revive the deal. But he has suggested that regional issues will be the focus of his foreign policy and has promised to extend the “hand of friendship” to Iran’s neighbours.
However, analysts caution that any shift is driven by pragmatism and remains fragile.
“There is this mood for reconciliation and de-escalation. But we are still in the first five minutes of it and anything could come up that could derail it,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of politics. “It’s promising, but we should be cautious not to jump to conclusions that the region is free of all these deep and historical problems.”