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Saudi Arabia, Iran Meet In Effort To Reduce Middle East Tensions


While the conflict between Hamas and Israel continues, there's a potentially big shift taking place between two other adversaries in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in secret talks in an effort to reduce tensions. Now, these discussions are in their infancy, and as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, there are plenty of long-simmering contentious issues that need to be worked out.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Just over three years ago, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, compared Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler and dismissed any notion of holding talks with Tehran. Compare that to an interview the crown prince gave recently to Al Arabiya television network, where he struck a much more conciliatory tone.


MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

NORTHAM: The crown prince said while he objected to certain negative behaviors by Iran, he hoped the two countries could have a good relationship. By the time the interview aired, high-level talks mediated by Iraq had already begun.

SANAM VAKIL: There have been shifts in the region that have forced Riyadh to reconsider its position vis-a-vis Iran. And I think this is why we are where we are today.

NORTHAM: Sanam Vakil is deputy director of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program. She says there are several reasons for Saudi Arabia's change of heart - a faltering economy, the pandemic and a major attack by Iran targeting the oil giant Aramco.

VAKIL: I think this was a really important wake-up moment that made Saudi Arabia aware that regional instability could impact domestic objectives and particularly economic ones, which are so critical for MBS, the crown prince's leadership.

NORTHAM: And then there's Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bogged down fighting Iranian-backed Houthis. Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Houthis have also been launching missiles towards the kingdom.

YASMINE FAROUK: The attacks from Yemen have been very, very intense since the beginning of the year, and the Saudis need this to stop. They don't have the military capability to make it stop on their own.

NORTHAM: That's why the Saudis want to talk with the Iranians. Ali Vaez, who heads up the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, says Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also wanted to talk with the Saudis since he took power in 2013.

ALI VAEZ: One of his key foreign policy agenda items was to pursue detente with Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis were not ready until, I would say, pretty close to the election of President Biden.

NORTHAM: Who has made it clear that Saudi Arabia will not have the same blank-check relationship it did under former President Donald Trump. The administration has stopped weapons sales to the kingdom and linked the crown prince to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Vaez says U.S. policy towards Iran has also changed.

VAEZ: The Biden administration is trying to revive the nuclear deal and is less hostile towards Iran and is pursuing a much more balanced approach towards the region. And as a result of that, the Saudis have decided to get ahead of the curve and negotiate with the Iranians themselves rather than being left out in the cold.

NORTHAM: Iranian and Saudi officials say that two formal meetings between senior intelligence and government figures have taken place so far. Chatham House's Vakil again.

VAKIL: The fact that the security establishment in both countries have been involved in those talks speaks to the investment from Tehran and Riyadh seizing this as an opportunity.

NORTHAM: Still, the nascent talks are extremely fragile, and any change in the region's dynamic has the potential to derail them, such as the current ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas, which is backed by Iran. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEAL SCHON'S "IRISH FIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.