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They Came To Baghdad

It seems that Saudi Arabia and Iran, considered as arch-rivals, are staging a détente in West Asia. Recent contacts between the Saudi and Iranian officials in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad seem to herald the beginning of a détente between the two Regional Powers.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who facilitated the meeting, hopes the rapprochement between the Saudis and Iranians would benefit his country that has been hardly affected by proxy fighting between the two parties. After a first meeting taking place in January 2021 between the UAE and Iran, followed by other contacts between the Iranians and the Jordanian, Egyptian and now Saudi officials, the recent episode in Baghdad is not limited to a Saudi-Iranian engagement, but it is a part of broader landscape of bringing all parties in West Asia into a multilateral forum based more on diplomacy, and less on militarism.

The erstwhile Peaceful Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (in Iran) can be stated primarily as a political and economic struggle exacerbated by religious differences and sectarianism in the region. It has been exploited by both countries for geopolitical purposes as part of a larger conflict for the last four decades. Iran is largely Shia Muslim nation, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.

West Asia suffers from the lack of a regional organisation aimed to create an institutional framework designed to bring stability, trust and dispute settlement procedures. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) was expected to fill this gap, but it is of an anti-Iranian nature, as well as international disputes that culminated with the blockade imposed on Qatar by three other GCC members severely affected the GCC’s image.

The possible détente between Iran and its Arab neighbours could be a consequence of the slight disagreement of the US from West Asia. The US’ Gulf allies have relied on the fact that they would always have unconditional American support, which has led them to confidently maintain an aggressive stance on Iran at the expense of making concessions and engaging with Tehran in diplomatic talks aimed at defusing the existing mistrust.

Joe Biden’s signs of a gradual withdrawal of the US’ military presence in the region, a reduction in US military aid to Saudi Arabia for its involvement in Yemen, and the intention to resume talks with Tehran for a JCPOA 2.0 Nuclear Deal, seem to determine the Arabs to take the fate into their own hands and play the diplomatic card with the traditional bogeyman, Iran.

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