Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has declined an invitation to Saudi Arabia, a gesture the Iranian government accepted as “friendly” that could have potentially eased tensions between the two nations. Zarif cited multilateral nuclear talks as preventing him from traveling to Riyadh for the event to which he was invited.
Zarif told Iran’s official state news agency IRNA that, while he welcomed the invitation, “it is not possible for me to attend,” as he has to be in Vienna from June 16-20 for multilateral talks about Iran’s nuclear program. The invitation was for a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation scheduled to take place during that interval, according to Pakistani newspaper The Nation.
While Zarif has traveled to other Arab countries representing the administration of President Hassan Rouhani during his tenure, he has yet to visit Saudi Arabia. The visit to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting would have been the first of its kind under Rouhani.
Al Jazeera reports that Saudi Arabia’s announcement of the invitation did not have a specified time limit, however, and instead was an open-ended declaration that Zarif would be welcome in Riyadh. “Any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbour, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. He did not say when Zarif was invited, however.
The governments of Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have long been rivals, stemming from both their religious differences and political interests in the region. The invitation to the Iranian Foreign Minister was perceived by many to be a radical change in tone, particularly as tensions have escalated thanks to the civil war in Syria, where the Iranian government backs President Bashar al-Assad while the Saudi government has supported opposition rebel groups.
Iran has been working to ease tensions with other Persian Gulf states, as well. This week, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah began a two-day visit to Tehran, the first since he became Kuwait’s head of state. The visit will include talks with senior Iranian officials on Iran’s military involvement in Syria, the situation in Iraq and Egypt, and the Middle East peace process, according to Kuwaiti officials. Kuwait was among the countries on Zarif’s tour of the Middle East last December, as well as the UAE, Oman, and Qatar. Zarif did not stop, however, in Saudi Arabia.