Iran’s foreign minister holds ‘friendly talks’ with Saudi Arabia

Iran’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that he held talks with his Saudi counterpart at a regional conference in a sign that Tehran is seeking to ease tensions with its arch rival as it cracks down on months of protests in the Islamic republic.

Hossein Amirabdollahian said he had “friendly talks” with Prince Faisal bin Farhan at this week’s gathering in Jordan, in what is believed to be the first meeting between Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers since 2017.

The extent of the meeting was not clear. The conference was attended by officials from across the region and French president Emmanuel Macron. The Saudi foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tensions between the predominantly Shia republic and the Sunni kingdom have increased in recent months as Tehran has accused Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers of stoking the worst outbreak of unrest in Iran in years.

Last month, western officials said Washington and Riyadh suspected that Iran had been preparing an imminent attack against Saudi Arabia.

“That attack likely did not occur because of the close security co-operation between Saudi Arabia and the United States,” Brett McGurk, the White House’s co-ordinator for the Middle East, said last month.

The Iranian protests erupted after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police in Tehran after being accused of not wearing her hijab properly.

The unrest swept across the republic with calls for regime change. Official figures put the number of deaths, including security personnel, at about 200. But Amnesty International says more than 300 protesters have been killed including 44 children.

Before the protests erupted, Iran and Saudi Arabia had held at least five rounds of talks in an effort to de-escalate tensions, with the last negotiations taking place in April.

Amirabdollahian wrote on social media that the Saudi foreign minister “assured me of his country’s readiness to continue the dialogue with Iran”.

Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic ties in 2016 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 former US president Donald 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.

Moves to cool tensions between the rivals began last year after Iraq hosted secret talks between Saudi and Iranian officials.

But officials have repeatedly cautioned that progress was slow, with Saudi Arabia frustrated that Iran was not willing to do more to use its influence over Houthi rebels in Yemen to help end that country’s more than seven-year civil war.

Saudi Arabia led an Arab coalition that intervened militarily in Yemen’s conflict in 2015 to counter the Houthis, and it accuses Tehran of supplying weapons to the rebels, including missiles and drones launched into the kingdom.

Iran acknowledges its political support for the Houthis, which control Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and much of the Arab state’s populous north, but denies supplying arms to the rebels.

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