Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said Saudi Arabia wants to resolve its differences with rival Iran, a marked shift in tone in the wake of the election of US President Joe Biden.
Prince Mohammed said in an interview on Saudi television that Riyadh did not want “the situation with Iran to be difficult” and wanted to build a “good and positive relationship” with the Islamic republic.
“We are working now with our partners in the region and the world to find solutions for these problems,” he said. “At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country. All what we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran.”
His comments late on Tuesday, come days after the Financial Times revealed that top Saudi and Iranian intelligence officials held secret talks this month in Baghdad in an effort to repair relations between the regional powerhouses. The rivals severed diplomatic ties five years ago.
Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day leader, has regularly railed against Iran, accusing the republic of stoking conflict in the Middle East and seeking to destabilise Saudi Arabia. In 2018, he likened Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.
At the time, he was a staunch backer of former president Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and impose crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic.
As Riyadh backed Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, the former US president stood by Prince Mohammed after the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents triggered the kingdom’s biggest diplomatic crisis in decades.
But Biden has promised to reassess relations with the kingdom and has been critical of human rights abuses in the kingdom, including Khashoggi’s brutal murder. He has also pledged to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and lift sanctions if Tehran falls back into full compliance with the accord.
The Biden administration has also intensified diplomatic efforts to end the six-year war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is fighting Houthi rebels aligned to Iran. Prince Mohammed sought to play down any differences with Washington, saying the kingdom was “in agreement with the Biden administration on more than 90 per cent of Saudi-US interests”.
“There is no such thing as a completely 100 per cent agreement between two countries, even with the Gulf countries, the closest ones,” he said. “There usually are some kind of differences, which is something you’d find in the same house, where brothers don’t agree 100 per cent on everything.”
Since Biden’s election, Prince Mohammed has ended a three-year regional embargo on Qatar and Riyadh has released some activists. Analysts say the moves were at least partly motivated by a desire to improve the crown prince’s standing in Washington.
There has been speculation that Riyadh has been keen to reduce tension with Iran since a missile and drone attack in September 2019 temporarily knocked out half of the kingdom’s crude oil output. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but US and Saudi officials blamed Iran.
Riyadh opposes the nuclear deal with Iran, which it fears will embolden Tehran and provide it with funding to back its regional proxies. But Saudi officials have said Saudi Arabia will not seek to hinder the nuclear talks.
Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran, the region’s top Shia power, severed diplomatic relations in early 2016. The kingdom’s embassy in Tehran was ransacked after Riyadh executed a senior Shia cleric.
Diplomats say Saudi Arabia is also serious about its desire to exit the war in Yemen, where it backs the government that was ousted by the Houthis in 2015. The Houthis have stepped up their attacks on Saudi Arabia this year. Prince Mohammed repeated a Saudi offer of a ceasefire in Yemen as long as the Houthis agreed to a truce and to participate in negotiations.