By Ghaida Ghantous
DUBAI (Reuters) – A Saudi foreign ministry official said on Friday that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran aim to reduce regional tensions, but added it was too early to judge the outcome and Riyadh wanted to see “verifiable deeds”.
The comments by Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the ministry, were the first public confirmation from Riyadh that the rivals – who severed ties in 2016 – were holding direct talks.
“As to current Saudi-Iranian talks they aim to explore ways to reduce tensions in the region,” Krimly told Reuters.
“We hope they prove successful, but it is too early, and premature, to reach any definitive conclusions. Our evaluation will be based on verifiable deeds, and not proclamations.”
He declined to provide details on the talks, but regional officials and sources had told Reuters that the discussions were focused on Yemen and the 2015 nuclear deal between global powers and Iran, which Riyadh had opposed.
Iraq’s president said on Wednesday that Baghdad hosted more than one round of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been locked in a rivalry that has played out in proxy conflicts across the region, including Yemen.
Krimly said Saudi policy had been explained “very clearly” by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who last month said that while the Sunni Muslim kingdom has a problem with Tehran’s “negative behaviour” it wanted good relations with Shi’ite Iran.
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have festered over the Yemen war, where an Iran-aligned Houthi group has increased attacks on Saudi Arabia. Strains between the two Gulf powerhouses also grew after a 2019 assault on Saudi oil plants that Riyadh blamed on Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
Riyadh supported former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to quit the nuclear pact for not addressing Tehran’s missiles programme and regional behaviour. After Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran responded by breaching several nuclear restrictions.
Global powers are trying at talks in Vienna to bring the United States and Iran back into full compliance with the deal. Saudi Arabia has urged them to reach a stronger accord.
Riyadh and Tehran have also backed opposing sides in Lebanon and Syria, where Iran has supported President Bashar al-Assad.
Gulf states have been alarmed by the rising influence of non-Arab Iran, Russia and Turkey in Syria, especially after Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended in 2011 over its crackdown on protesters at the start of the civil war.
Krimly said recent media reports that the head of Saudi intelligence had held talks in Damascus were inaccurate.
He said Saudi policy towards Syria remained based on support for the Syrian people, for a political solution under a United Nations umbrella and in accordance with Security Council resolutions, and for the unity and Arab identity of Syria.
(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Catherine Evans and Alex Richardson)