MUNICH (Reuters) – Iran and Saudi Arabia appeared no closer to bridging their differences on Saturday with both sides sticking to their positions and regional facilitator Oman seeing no breakthrough before US elections in November.
Tensions in the Gulf region stepped up after the killing in early January of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States in Iraq. European and Arab states have since scrambled to avert a full-fledged conflict between the two sides.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud both attended the Munich Security Conference on Saturday and took part in a session on defusing tensions in the Gulf.
But the two were kept apart with Zarif even claiming that his Saudi counterpart had asked to reshuffle the schedule so that he wouldn’t have to meet him.
“I believe our neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, do not want to (de-escalate),” Zarif said, adding that he believed Riyadh was firmly under the influence of the US campaign to put maximum pressure on Tehran.
He said the Saudis had reached out to Iran after the killing of Soleimani, but when Iran had responded the contact had ended. He suggested the United States had pressured Riyadh.
When asked about possible contacts with Iran, Prince Faisal said there had been neither private messages nor direct contacts. He said the ball was in Iran’s court, especially as it had been behind attacks on the kingdom, including drone and missile strikes on its oil facilities in September.
“Our message to Iran is to change its behavior first before anything is to be discussed,” he said after Zarif had left the room thirty minutes earlier. “Until we can talk about the real sources of that instability, talk is going to be unproductive.”
After Washington withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Trump began a policy of “maximum pressure”, saying a broader deal should be negotiated on nuclear issues, Iran’s missile program and Iranian activities in the Middle East.
US sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, slashing its oil exports. Iran has long said it will not negotiate with Washington while sanctions are in place.
Zarif said French and Japanese efforts to bring Iran and the United States around the negotiating table had “fallen on deaf ears” because Trump believed Iran was on the verge of economic collapse.
“He is wrong,” Zarif said. “Everything they want is about regime change.”
Oman, often considered as a facilitator for talks between Washington and Tehran, appeared downcast on the prospects.
“The reality is there are no messages,” Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said after meeting Zarif earlier in the day. “I’m not anticipating anything (will happen) in the next six months,” he said, referring to upcoming US elections.
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Paul Carrel and Christina Fincher
Image: FILE PHOTO: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference following a meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Moscow, Russia, December 30, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina