In a highly unexpected and unusual development, and coming off a possible diplomatic breakthrough amid recent talks aimed at opening up relations, Iranian diplomats arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this weekend for the first time in a half-decade. The two countries haven't had diplomatic relations since 2016, when Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the kingdom's execution of a popular Shia cleric. They are reportedly preparing to reopen embassies.
The Saudis and Iranians have further been waging fierce proxy wars against the other in places like Syria and Yemen over a period of years. Shia Iran has long funded and sent weapons primarily to Hezbollah, as well as Yemen's Houthi rebels, while the Saudis have funded Sunni jihadists including ISIS. The two sides have also long vied for influence in Lebanon's politics, with Washington consistently backing the Saudis.
"Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that Iran is focusing for now on reopening its offices in OIC with three diplomats. Iran has long said it’s ready to reopen its embassy in Riyadh," the Associated Press reports Monday, in reference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. "In recent months, neighboring Iraq has hosted talks between the two Arab nations aimed at normalizing ties." The OIC has 57 member nations and is based in Riyadh, and is focused on economic cooperation and political solidarity on Islam-related issues.
Iran cautioned that it will only pursue the formal reestablishment of relations if Riyadh is prepared to also take "practical steps" in this direction, according to a statement by the foreign ministry's Khatibzadeh.
“It depends on what practical measures the Saudi side will take," he said, Monday, stressing that Tehran itself taking great strides. The Iranian spokesman further called the diplomats’ visit "a good prelude for the two sides to send delegations to visit their embassies."
But as the Associated Press underscores, a number of pressing problems and disagreements remain between the two: "Saudi Arabia is also concerned about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs. Iran says the nuclear program has peaceful purposes and its missile program is merely defensive."
Going back at least two years, the Saudis have also pointed the finger at Iran for allegedly supplying Shia rebels in Yemen with missiles capable of reaching deep into Saudi territory. In recent months, sporadic ground-launched missiles from the Houthis have targeted Saudi airports.
Given these significant steps and signs of growing rapprochement, further positive breakthroughs in this direction would have huge reverberations throughout the region, potentially helping to stabilize still smoldering conflict zones in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
#Iran FM spokesman (on Iran-Saudi talks): The focus is on launching Iran's OIC representation in Jeddah...As president Raisi had earlier noted, Iran is ready to reopen embassy in #SaudiArabia & that depends on Saudi side. We’ll consider all arrangements for this to be implemented pic.twitter.com/aVVmuoLTcq— Abas Aslani (@AbasAslani) January 17, 2022
It appears that after a decade of war, particularly focused in Syria, Tehran and Riyadh are seeking to draw down the intensity of the proxy wars, with currently the Yemen conflict still being the most intense one in the region.