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Iran and Saudi Arabia held direct talks in Baghdad to repair rivalry: Report

Iraq's prime minister acted as a 'bridge' between the two regional powers, according to the Financial Times
Iraq's prime minister held talks with Saudi Arabia's crown prince during a visit to Riyadh, just over a week before hosting the Saudi-Iran talks, according to the FT (Reuters)

Saudi and Iranian officials met in Baghdad this month for direct talks to ease their bitter rivalry, the Financial Times reported on Sunday. 

Iraq facilitated the talks, which were accelerated by Iranian nuclear talks with the US and attacks in Yemen by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, an official involved in the talks told the UK newspaper.

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The official said the talks, the first round of which took place in the Iraqi capital on 9 April, were positive. 

Lebanon's pro-Iran Al Mayadeen television channel and Unews news agency on Sunday both cited an Iranian source denying the talks with Saudi Arabia.

The FT also said that a senior Saudi official denied there had been any talks with Iran.

Tehran and Riyadh cut diplomatic relations five years ago after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by mobs angry at the execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. 

The two countries have also been on opposite sides of Yemen's civil war, with Iran backing the Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemeni government forces. 

Kadhimi acted as a 'bridge'

Officials involved in the talks said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's personal involvement has been crucial to the talks because he has been able to act as "bridge" between the rivals.

Kadhimi visited Riyadh to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last month, according to the FT. Baghdad has also been facilitating talks for Iran with Egypt and Jordan, the newspaper reported.

Bin Salman strongly supported former US president Donald Trump's maximum pressure campaign against Iran, including the reimposing of sanctions on the country.

However, Saudi Arabia's vulnerability to attack was exposed after a missile and drone assault 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 Tehran.

The Saudi crown prince's policy now appears to have shifted to support the softer policy of Trump's successor, Joe Biden. 

The Saudi delegation for the talks in Baghdad was led by intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, according to the report.