Saudi-Iran talks said to stall over Tehran’s claim Riyadh behind protests

Planned Baghdad negotiations not yet scheduled as Iran accuses its regional rival of fomenting anti-regime demonstrations at home

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images)
Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Baghdad-mediated diplomatic talks between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia have come to a halt, largely because of Tehran claims the Sunni kingdom has played a role in alleged foreign incitement of the mass anti-government protests underway in Iran, multiple Iraqi officials said.

The talks had been lauded as a breakthrough that would ease regional tensions. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said last month after taking office that Iraq had been asked to continue facilitating the dialogue.

However, an anticipated sixth round of talks, to be hosted by Baghdad, has not been scheduled because Tehran refuses to meet with Saudi officials as protests in Iran enter a fourth month, according to the Iraqi officials.

“The Iranian-Saudi negotiations have stalled, and this will have a negative impact on the region,” said Amer al-Fayez, an Iraqi lawmaker and member of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee.

On his first official visit to Tehran in November, al-Sudani inquired about resuming the talks and mentioned he would be traveling to the Saudi capital of Riyadh soon.

But the Iranians told him they would not meet with Saudi counterparts and accused the kingdom of supporting country-wide protests in Iran through Saudi-funded media channels, according to an official who is a member of Iraq’s ruling Coordination Framework coalition, an alliance of mostly Iran-backed groups.

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, then a candidate for Iraq’s prime minister position, speaks during the parliamentary session to vote on the new government in Baghdad, Iraq, October 27, 2022. (Iraqi Parliament Media Office via AP, File)

The details were confirmed by five Iraqi officials, including government officials, Iran-backed militia groups and Shiite Muslim political party figures. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject with the media.

Iran’s UN mission confirmed the talks had halted but did not provide an explanation. “The talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia ceased before the recent developments in Iran, for a variety of reasons. It might be worth asking Saudi Arabia about them,” the mission said in a statement.

The kingdom did not respond to requests for comment.

Iran’s apparent refusal to continue with the talks is a setback for al-Sudani, who had hoped an ongoing Saudi-Iran dialogue would enable Iraq to buttress its role as a regional mediator. Halting the talks could have regional repercussions as well, with the two nations supporting opposing forces in several conflicts across the Middle East, including in Syria and Yemen, where Iran backs Houthi rebels fighting against the kingdom.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of funding the London-based Iran International, a news channel which has been reporting extensively on the protests that erupted in Iran in mid-September. Iran International is a Farsi-language satellite news channel that was once majority-owned by a Saudi national.

Tehran was also irked by a joint statement issued after an Arab-China summit in Riyadh last week, according to an Iraqi official in the Foreign Ministry. In the statement, Saudi Arabia and China said they agreed to “strengthen joint cooperation to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” while also calling on Iran to respect “principles of good neighborliness and non-interference in internal affairs of states.”

China has been a longtime economic partner to Iran, with bilateral relations centered on Beijing’s energy needs but also including arm sales. The deepening ties between the countries are also seen as strategic regional counterweight to the United States and its allies. Tehran is worried that improved economic ties between Beijing and Riyadh could unravel this status quo, Iraqi officials said.

Saudi Arabia, with a majority Sunni population, and Iran, which is majority Shiite, have been at odds since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but relations worsened after the 2016 execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Riyadh. The incident set off protests in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where demonstrators set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations soured after that.

Direct talks were launched in April 2021, brokered by Iraq, in a bid to improve relations. The mere existence of a dialogue was seen as important, even if the only notable result so far has been Iran reopening the country’s representative office to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Iran has been mired in anti-government protests since September 16, following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in police custody, after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. From demonstrations calling for greater freedoms for women, the protests have become one of the greatest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the chaotic years after the Islamic Revolution.

At least 495 people have been killed since the demonstrations started, according to Iran rights monitor HRANA, with reported incidents of Iranian security forces using live ammunition, pellets and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Over 18,000 people have been detained across dozens of cities.

Iranians protest the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, October 27, 2022. (This photo was taken by an individual not employed by The Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran)

Iran claims the protests are orchestrated by foreign agents, including the US and its regional allies such as Israel. At the start of the protests, Tehran blamed Kurdish opposition groups exiled in Iraq for fueling the demonstrations and funneling weapons into Iran, without providing evidence for the claims. Iran unleashed a barrage of missile attacks into northern Iraq targeting the party bases, and killing at least a dozen people.

Kurdish opposition groups have denied Tehran’s allegations that they smuggled weapons into Iran, and said their involvement was limited to standing in solidarity with protesters, especially in the Kurdish-speaking regions of Iran, and raising awareness globally.

Iran has continued to pressure Iraq to enforce stricter border controls.

The topic was broached again during al-Sudani’s visit to Tehran, officials said. Iraq has deployed specialized border forces to the area near its border with Iran. The forces are made up mainly of Kurdish soldiers to avoid tensions with the government of Iraq’s northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

“Iran is now facing a real crisis,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, an Iraqi political analyst.

Iran, he said, is attempting to scapegoat other countries and groups, “in order to convince the Iranian people that the crisis is the result of foreign interference.”

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