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Rhetoric or retreat: Saudi FM says hands outstretched to Iran

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has said Riyadh stands ready for rapprochement with Iran, but claimed that the Islamic Republic does not commit itself to de-escalating tensions.

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in January 2016 following angry protests outside its embassy in Tehran over Riyadh’s execution of a prominent cleric. The country has followed a hostile policy which intensified in line with former US president Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

In an interview with Al Arabiya TV channel, however, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud alleged that Tehran is “not serious about talks with Riyadh”.

“Our hands are outstretched for peace with Iran, but it does not commit itself to agreements,” he said.

The remarks came two days after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed his Qatari counterpart’s call for the Persian Gulf Arab countries to hold talks with Iran, saying Tehran has long demanded neighborly cooperation towards establishing a strong Middle East.

Tehran has on many occasions announced its readiness to hold talks with its neighbors directly. It has already put forward an initiative called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) to promote security in the Persian Gulf and facilitate such neighborly negotiations.

Prince Faisal claimed that Iran’s “calls for dialogue are meant to divert attention away from its own crises”.

Riyadh acted as one of the main forces behind Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, after which the US returned its draconian sanctions against Tehran.

Nuclear deal was ‘weak’

Commenting on the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the top Saudi diplomat claimed that new US President Joe Biden had pledged to include Persian Gulf allies and Israel in any future talks that focused on Iran’s nuclear program as well as its missiles and regional role.

The JCPOA was “weak” because there was a lack of coordination with the countries in the region, Prince Faisal said.

“We will consult with the US regarding the agreement so that it will be a strong basis,” he added. “The European countries understand that the previous agreement with Tehran has flaws.”

Iran has categorically dismissed negotiating the nuclear deal with the regional countries. Tehran has also rejected any renegotiation of the JCPOA, saying the US must lift the sanctions before returning to the nuclear deal.

Open to political solution in Yemen?

Elsewhere in his interview, the top Saudi diplomat indicated his country’s readiness to reach a political solution on Yemen, but threw the ball in Houthis’ court. 

“The Houthis will facilitate reaching a solution if they decide that the interest of Yemen is the most important,” Prince Faisal said.  

The conciliatory remarks come as Yemeni forces, including Houthi fighters, are going from strength to strength against the Saudi-led invaders. 

Riyadh is additionally worried by the exit of the Trump administration which was a staunch supporter of the kingdom and its war on Yemen. 

Biden pledged in his campaign to reassess ties with the kingdom, demanding more accountability over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate and calling for an end to US support for the Yemen war.

The Saudi foreign minister, nevertheless, voiced optimism that relations with the United States would be “excellent” under Biden. 

“The Biden administration will see that we have common goals with regards to the situation in Yemen,” he said. 

A spokesperson at the US State Department said Friday Washington has started a review of a decision by the Trump administration to designate Yemen’s popular Houthi Ansarullah movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

Prince Faisal, however, defended the blacklisting, saying it was “justified”.

Saudi Arabia launched a devastating military aggression against Yemen in March 2015 in collaboration with a number of its allied states, and with arms and logistics support from the US and several Western countries.

The aim was to return to power a Riyadh-backed former regime and defeat the popular Houthi Ansarullah movement that has been running state affairs in the absence of an effective government in the Arab country.

The Saudi war has failed to achieve its goals, but killed tens of thousands of innocent Yemenis and destroyed the impoverished country’s infrastructure. The UN refers to the situation in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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