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Iran and Saudi Arabia Move Toward Normalization

Iran has welcomed warm comments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during talks in Riyadh, on Oct. 14, 2019. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Iran and Saudi Arabia creep toward normalization, a crush at a religious festival kills dozens in Israel, and a World Trade Organization forum on suspending COVID-19 vaccine patents reconvenes.

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Iran and Saudi Arabia Edge Toward Détente

Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia could be entering “a new chapter of interaction and cooperation,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Thursday as the two countries signal a rapid mending of diplomatic ties.

Khatibzadeh’s comments came in response to an interview Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave to state television this week, saying problems between the regional rivals could be overcome and “good relations” could soon prevail. His recent comments offer a stark contrast with ones he made in 2018 when he compared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler and described Iran as part of a “triangle of evil.”

Behind the scenes, the two countries have also been busy. Earlier this month, the Financial Times broke news of direct talks, held in Baghdad, with a primary focus on ending the war in Yemen.

Why the change? Although the United States has not been involved in the diplomatic opening, recent U.S. moves have certainly contributed to it. As Trita Parsi wrote in Foreign Policy on Thursday, the Biden administrations desire to move its focus away from the Middle East has encouraged Saudi Arabia to take matters into its own hands. “Diplomatic opportunities have existed all along,” Parsi wrote, “but were perceived as suboptimal by U.S. partners compared to simply relying on Washington to back them up and resolve their problems.”

For Parsi, the logic is clear. “If the United States takes a step back militarily, regional partners will be prompted to take a step forward diplomatically,” he wrote.

What We’re Following Today

Tragedy in Israel. At least 44 people are dead, including some children, following a stampede at a religious gathering at Mount Meron in northern Israel—one of the countrys worst peacetime disasters.

It’s not yet clear what caused the crush, with initial reports referencing a grandstand collapse and a resulting stampede. At least 150 people remain in critical condition following the incident. The Lag BOmer festival was the first mass religious event following the easing of coronavirus restrictions following a successful vaccination drive. An estimated 90,000 people came together to worship on Thursday night.

TRIPS Council reconvenes. The World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) meets today, with a joint Indian-South African proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines still under consideration. The waiver has been held up by rich nations, including the United States, since it was proposed last October, although the Biden administration has said its position is now under review.

Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh, in an article published late Thursday, goes behind the scenes to report on the fight to convince Biden to back the waiver and the efforts of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai to pursue a compromise.

Tajik-Kyrgyz border clash. At least 14 people were killed in clashes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border on Thursday as tensions over access to a water distribution center turned violent. Approximately 13,500 Kyrgyz have been evacuated from villages following the incident, which both sides accuse the other of starting. Although a cease-fire was declared on Thursday evening, gunfire erupted again in the early hours of Friday.

Keep an Eye On

Germany’s climate ruling. Germany’s government must go further in planning its course to become carbon-free by 2050, a German court ruled on Thursday in a victory for climate activists. Current legislation only plans for carbon reductions up to 2030, a short-term view that violated the liberties of the young appellants who brought the case, the court ruled. Some politicians used the ruling to chide German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union for watering down climate legislation, as both the Social Democratic Party and Greens party position themselves as alternatives ahead of elections in September.

Palestinian elections postponed. The Palestinian Authority’s legislative election—scheduled for May 22—will now be postponed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said late Thursday, blaming Israel for not allowing voting in East Jerusalem. His rival, Hamas, rejected the decision, which comes as Abbas’s official Fatah party list trails a rival Fatah grouping in polls. Abbas did not say whether he would postpone the upcoming presidential elections slated for July.

Odds and Ends

A checkers world championship match between Russian and Polish opponents became the site of diplomatic tension on Tuesday after a Polish official disrupted an ongoing game to remove the Russian flag from the table. Russia’s Tamara Tansykkuzhina, a six-time world champion, went on to lose the round, prompting Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov to blame her defeat on the interruption.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has banned Russian athletes from competing under their flag until December 2022 after it ruled the country did not strictly enforce anti-doping measures, a fact match organizers had overlooked. Jacek Pawlicki, the official responsible for the incident, has apologized to the Russian people. “There’s this position on the board called zugzwang—which means there’s no good move to make,” Pawlicki told Reuters. “And that’s what we had yesterday, a zugzwang.

Natalia Sadowska, Tansykkuzhina’s opponent, removed her Polish flag in solidarity following the interference. The two are currently in a best-of-nine series for the world title, culminating on May 3.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn