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GCC chief in Baghdad as report says Saudi-Iran backchannel negotiations ongoing 'for months' Open in fullscreen

Kamal Afzali

GCC chief in Baghdad as report says Saudi-Iran backchannel negotiations ongoing 'for months'

GCC Secretary General Nayef Al-Hajraf (L), Iraq's Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein (R) [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 1 February, 2021

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The GCC’s chief unannounced visit to Baghdad, where pro-Tehran factions dominate, came amid a report that Saudi Arabia and arch-rival Iran have been in backchannel negotiations for months.

The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) arrived in Iraq for meetings with senior officials on Sunday, The New Arab’s Arabic-language service has reported, the same day a report revealed ongoing backchannel communications between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In a press conference, alongside Iraq's Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein, GCC Secretary General Nayef Al-Hajraf said that the body stands with Iraq in its fight against extremism and that the two sides discussed a 2019 deal to connect Iraq to the Gulf region's power grid.

On Monday, Hajraf met with Iraqi President Barham Salih for talks on strengthening bilateral relations between the bloc and Baghdad.

He also affirmed their commitment to joint economic and investment memorandums of understanding, according to a statement by Iraq's presidency.

Salih also praised the GCC for "the success of the Gulf summit and the signing of the Ula declaration", saying it bolstered the bloc's "positive influence on peace and stability in the wider region".

At the GCC's annual summit last month, Saudi Arabia was among the signatories of the declaration - alongside Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt - ending a three-year dispute with Qatar.

In 2017, the four countries broke off relations with Doha and imposed a land and air blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremist groups and being "too close" to Iran - charges the Gulf state vehemently denied.

Since the summit, Qatar's foreign minister has called on Gulf countries to hold talks with Iran, saying the country was "hopeful this would happen" and that it was a "desire" shared by GCC members.

The GCC chief's surprise visit to Baghdad, where pro-Iran factions dominate internal affairs, comes as President Joe Biden's administration is expected to relax the US' policy of "maximum pressure" against Tehran pursued by his predecessor.

This could force Riyadh to reassess its decades-old rivalry with Iran, especially if it seeks concessions from the Biden administration - which has already announced reviews of massive arms packages to the kingdom and the recent "terrorist" tag of Yemen's Tehran-aligned Houthis.

Read more: US Secretary of State to review Houthi 'terrorist group' designation

A new-era in Saudi-Iran relations?

The dawn of a new era in Iran and Saudi Arabia relations could be on the horizon, according to a comment piece by two individuals close to the respective diplomatic leaderships and published by The Guardian on Sunday.

Proposals by Abdulaziz Sager, the Saudi Arabian chairman and founder of the Gulf Research Center, and Hossein Mousavian, a former senior Iranian diplomat and now a nuclear specialist at Princeton University - are the outcome of private talks that have been underway for months.

Sager and Mousavian warn of the dangerous consequences of a miscalculation which could turn the protracted cold war between the two sides hot.

They pointed to the string of attacks on Saudi and Iranian oil tankers and the major strike on Saudi Aramco facilities in 2019, as well as the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

They acknowledge that both countries perceive the other as seeking regional domination, with Riyadh fearful of Iran encircling the kingdom through its powerful proxies in countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, while the Islamic republic sees Riyadh's alliance with the US as an existential threat.

The two men call on their respective countries to agree to the inviolability of national boundaries, reject violence and sectarianism, and abandon the use of proxy forces to advance national interests.

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